- Please Do Not Lather Up The Employees, Part 2
(Retail | CA, USA)
Customer: “I’d like to buy these, please.”
(The customer is an older gentleman. He has five bottles of lotion.)
Me: “Okay, let me ring you up.”
Customer: *smiles* “One for each mistress.”
Me: *laughing nervously* “Awesome.”
(The customer winks and licks his lips.)
Customer: “I can grab a sixth, if you like.”
- Fighting words
A full bottle will strike a target with almost 70% more energy than an empty bottle. In other words, it takes less muscle work to achieve a greater striking energy when fighting with a full bottle, even though lifting the bottle requires slightly more energy. — quote from text of Are full or empty beer bottles sturdier and does their fracture-threshold suffice to break the human skull?, a peer-reviewed research paper in the Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine, 2009.
- How giving 110% is actually possible
Quantitative pedants always wince whenever anyone — usually an athlete — rattles off a phrase like “we gave 110% out there tonight.”
“It’s impossible to give more than 100%,” they’ll say. “That’s what ‘percent’ means.”
But of course percentages greater than 100 are possible. That’s how Google’s Android Market can grow by 861.5% in year-over-year revenue, just to pick one example.
It all depends on what your baseline is — x percent of what. But it’s usually easier for tongue-clicking know-it-alls to just assume athletes are dumb than to try to actually figure out what it is they might be talking about.
Here’s actually a more serious (and more mathematically precise) way to look at this. Economist Stephen Shmanske has a new paper in the Journal of Quantitative Analysis in Sports titled “Dynamic Effort, Sustainability, Myopia, and 110% Effort” that actually brings some stats and benchmarks to bear to figure this out in the context of the NBA.
For Shmanske, it’s all about defining what counts as 100% effort. Let’s say “100%” is the maximum amount of effort that can be consistently sustained. With this benchmark, it’s obviously possible to give less than 100%. But it’s also possible to give more. All you have to do is put forth an effort greater that can only be sustained inconsistently, for short periods of time. In other words, you’re overclocking.
And in fact, based on the numbers, NBA players pull greater-than-100-percent off relatively frequently, putting forth more effort in short bursts than they can keep up over a longer period. And giving greater than 100% can reduce your ability to subsequently and consistently give 100%. You overdraw your account, and don’t have anything left.
I haven’t dived into the paper (it’s behind a subscription wall, natch), but doesn’t this seem like a rough-but-reasonable analysis of what athletes and other people mean when they use language this way? Shouldn’t we all calm down a little with rulers across the fingers bearing ready-made “correct” use of the rhetoric of percentages?
- The Robots of Dawn
Shared by DanielDeboer
I have this book, with this cover.
Al Comments: I hate to go here in my first post, but this cover is just, so, well, robo-erotic.
- I know the answers but can't respond fast enough – Since You Asked – Salon.com
Shared by DanielDeboer
I know what this feels like. Having almost unlimited knowledge on the tip of my tongue and not being able to express myself.
People in law school think I’m dumb because questions throw me off
- 3D printing consumables for dead technology
Shared by DanielDeboer
3D printers are so, so freaking cool.
The Sharp CE-150 was a graphing calculator that used a pen-plotter to draw its charts. The pens haven’t been manufactured in years, so Thingiverse user TeamTeamUSA is creating a 3D printable adapter that will accept modern pen cartridges:
Re-live the bygone years of RPN, 16 Kb total RAM, cassette tape storage, and plotted printing!
A friend is a vintage computer junkie and one of his recent purchases was a printer/plotter for his Sharp PC-1500A pocket computer.
Although the printer works, the pens, being almost 30 years old, do not nor are they still available.
This is an attempt to help him re-live the geeky years of his youth!
- You’ve Got To Be Kitten, Part 2
(Vet | Seattle, WA, USA)
Me: “Thank you for calling [vet hospital]. How can I help you?”
Customer: “I found some kittens. I am trying to get them to eat. They are small and I don’t think they should be away from their mom.”
Me: “Okay. Are you able to get some milk replacer from the store?”
Customer: “Well, I bought some kitten food. They won’t eat it. I am trying to get my cat to nurse them.”
Me: “Is your cat the mother of the kittens?”
Customer: “No, but I am trying to get him to nurse them. How can I do that?”
Me: “Him? Your cat is a male?”
Customer: “Yes, but I thought cats would adopt kittens and raise them.”
Me: “You want your male cat to nurse the kittens?”
Me: “Here is the phone number for the local cat foster program. They will be happy to raise the kittens for you.”
You’ve Got To Be Kitten
- Ten Reasons Why I Would Never Donate to a Major Charity (How to Be a Superhero, Part 2)
Photo: Katherine Johnson
“Giving to Charity” is another myth we fervently uphold as part of the Great American Religion — just like “own a home” or “send your kids to college.” It’s time we stop blindly believing in mythology. I’m not saying don’t give. I’m not saying don’t be spiritual or don’t be good. But do it with thoughtfulness, with true spirit, with a true desire to help. More harm than good is done when you blindly throw money at most charities.
When the first version of this article came out (“How to Be a Superhero…or Why I Would Never Donate to a Major Charity”), I got a lot of criticism. So I’m going to answer some of the criticisms/questions that arose and I look forward to any comments or further suggestions.
1) Be a Microcharity, part 2. First off, my recommendation in the first article still holds. What I like to do is directly donate to what I call “micro-causes.” Specifically, pick up the local paper and see who needs help right now, where a small amount of money can immediately make a significant difference in someone’s life.
In other words, be directly, personally involved with your cause. Then you know how the dollars are being used, you know face to face who is being helped, you feel good, you solve an immediate problem, you save a life. You go from being an average guy to a superhero. Please check out the above article, as I describe the best ways to do this. For the next nine reasons I give specifics as to why I avoid the major charities.
2) I already donate to thousands of major charities. When you pay taxes, a good portion of the U.S. budget goes toward funding philanthropic causes. I have no control over that money. Nor is that money always correctly allocated. So much corruption (not in our government but in others) has siphoned off that money. Nor do I always approve of the charities being donated to but I have no choice over it. And that’s fine. I can use No. 1 above to balance that off. I do have to say, though, that some of those charities the government has funded have worked. We eradicated smallpox throughout the world for instance. I feel pretty good about that. So if I can use my dollars to make more money for myself, and then pay more taxes, I don’t think it’s such a bad thing.
While cancer rates are rising, it's harder than ever to get drugs through the FDA
3) I don’t like paying administrative overhead. For every $1 someone donates to the American Cancer Society, 9.8 cents goes to administrative costs. I’m happy that people have jobs and are hired and I have nothing against those that work for the ACS. But I bet if I used that money to start my own company (or, again, directly help people through my own micro-charity), then more people would have jobs as a result, and more people would get their problems solved. And the ACS is probably one of the best-run major charities out there.
4) I don’t like paying marketing costs. I didn’t realize this until I looked it up. But for every dollar I give to the American Cancer Society, 21.8 cents goes toward furthering their marketing efforts. I thought I just gave them money. Now they need more money already? So only 70 cents of my dollar goes to actually helping the families with cancer.
5) There are better ways to cure cancer. First off, it seems like I’m picking on the American Cancer Society. But this is the No. 1 killer in the U.S. so I might as well focus on it a little bit. And it’s not just cancer. What I’m about to say applies to Alzheimer’s, heart disease, and every other major disease. Companies cure cancer. Scientists with new ideas for drugs team up with businessmen, start little companies, get approximately $200 million to $1 billion in funding, then develop their drugs, put them through a bunch of different phrases through the FDA, and then finally if the drugs are good, they get bought by a bigger company that’s better at selling the drug.
That’s how cancer gets cured. That’s how every disease in the world finds a cure now. So if you really want to help cure a major disease, put money into a biotech mutual fund, which funds small biotech companies. These companies are at the frontier of major biotech research. The other thing is to lobby the government to reduce the FDA’s stringent standards on drugs. A drug costs up to $200 million or more to get through the FDA. The only way companies can recoup that cost is by charging enormous amounts for drugs. This is part of the reason why health care and insurance are so expensive. Drugs for prostate cancer, for instance, cost up to $93,000 a month because of the billion or so it cost to get through the FDA.
6) It’s hard to uncover charity fraud. The recent 60 Minutes expose on Greg Mortenson’s charity for building schools in Afghanistan is a good example. I don’t know if this is a fraud or not. We may never know the full story. I don’t want to know. But if it takes 60 Minutes to uncover something, using the best reporters out there, then how am I going to possibly be able to find out what’s fraud and what’s not.
7) Charities are businesses. Businesses have agendas. The agenda of a charity is to convince you of a cause so that you feel concerned enough about it to donate. Example: there are many charities that try to do something about global warming. However, there is a lot of mixed evidence of global warming. If people stopped donating to these charities, even if all the evidence suggests that their cause is meaningless, a lot of jobs would be lost. A lot of lives (the families of the people holding those jobs) would be hurt. That’s sad. But it’s not your responsibility to help them. Many charities have causes that are unclear at best. So best to avoid them.
High unemployment. With every dollar that I don’t save, I have two choices: donate it to a charity or spend it. A charity is obligated to spend only a very small amount per year on actual charitable activity. The rest goes into funds that generate interest. They spend off of the interest. When I spend a dollar in the economy, it instantly has its effect on jobs, growth, etc, particularly because of the “multiplier effect” (e.g. I buy a sandwich in a deli, the deli guy uses the dollar to buy a chair, the chair guy buys some books, the books guy buys a house, etc.). So each dollar spent is the equivalent of $10 spent on the economy. That has an immediate effect on the quality of our lives: lower unemployment, greater demand for products, homes etc.
9) Smart allocators of capital are on the case. Bill Gates and Warren Buffet are a 1,000 times better than I am at researching charitable cases, allocating their capital, investing correctly the leftover funds, etc. My $100 (or $1,000, or $10,000) is not going to make a dent compared to their $100 billion. Let them handle the big problems. With the micro-charity idea, I can personally make a great difference to people who Bill Gates will never even hear about.
10) Give in every way you can possibly give. Spend your time and efforts on proper giving. Too often, giving to charities is a way to pass on the personal giving responsibility to someone else. “I gave at the office.” In addition to No. 1, please check out my post “Give and You Will Receive.” It’s one of my first posts here and I truly believe and try to live by it. Giving of ourselves is the most important thing we can do in our lives, and the more you give, the more benefits you will receive. So don’t give simply to receive those benefits; give and then enjoy the benefits that will shower down. But the more personal the giving is, the greater the benefit.
- Why Bathing Was Uncommon in Medieval Europe
Today I found out that why bathing was uncommon in Medieval Europe.
Before the Middle Ages, public baths were very common, as was the general public regularly taking time to bathe in one way or another. Even during the 4th and 5th centuries, Christian authorities allowed people to bathe for cleanliness and health, but condemned attendance to public bath houses for pleasure and condemned women going to bath houses that had mixed facilities. However, over time, more and more restrictions appeared. Eventually, Christians were prohibited from bathing naked and, overall, the church began to not approve an “excessive” indulgence in the habit of bathing. This culminated in the Medieval church authorities proclaiming that public bathing led to immorality, promiscuous sex, and diseases.
This latter “disease” point was very common; it was believed in many parts of Europe that water could carry disease into the body through the pores in the skin. According to one medical treaty of the 16th century, “Water baths warm the body, but weaken the organism and widen pores. That’s why they can be dangerous and cause different diseases, even death.” It wasn’t just diseases from the water itslef they were worried about. They also felt that with the pores widened after a bath, this resulted in infections of the air having easier access to the body. Hence, bathing became connected with spread of diseases, not just immorality.
For most lower class citizens, particularly men, this resulted in them completley forgoing bathing. During this time, people tended to restrict their hygienic arrangements to just washing hands, parts of the face, and rinsing their mouths. Washing one’s entire face was thought to be dangerous as it was believed to cause catarrh and weaken the eyesight, so even this was infrequent.
Members of the upper classes, on the other hand, rather than completley forgo bathing, tended to cut down their full body bathing habits down to around a few times per year, striking a balance between risk of acquiring a disease from the bath vs. body stench.
This wasn’t always the case though. As one Russian ambassador to France noted “His Majesty [Louis XIV] stunk like a wild animal.” Russians were not so finicky about bathing and tended to bathe fairly regularly, relatively speaking, generally at least once a month. Because of this, they were considered perverts by many Europeans. King Louis XIV stench came from the fact that his physicians advised him to bathe as infrequently as possible to maintain good health. He also stated he found the the act of bathing disturbing. Because of this, he is said to have only bathed twice in his lifetime. Another in this “gruesome two-some” class among the aristocracy was Queen Isabel I of Spain who once confessed that she had taken a bath only twice in her lifetime, when she was first born and when she got married.
To get around the water/disease and sinful nature of bathing, many aristocrats during the Middle Ages replaced bathing with scented rags to rub the body and heavy use of perfumes to mask their stench. Men wore small bags with fragrant herbs between the shirt and waistcoat, while women used fragrant powders.
Amazingly, this complete lack of personal hygiene in most of Europe lingered until around the mid-19th century.
- If most of the entire populace smelling rancid wasn’t enough, during Medieval times in Europe, the streets of cities tended to be coated in feces and urine thanks to people tossing the contents of their chamber pots into the streets. As one 16th century nobleman noted “the streets resembled a fetid stream of turbid water.” He also noted that he had to keep a scented handkerchief held under his nose in order to keep himself from vomiting when walking the streets. If that wasn’t enough, butchers slaughtered animals in the streets and would leave the unusable bits and blood right on the ground. One can only imagine how people survived the stench on sun-baked summer days.
- Interestingly, during the Middle Ages, people surprisingly did pay some attention to dental hygiene. Teeth were cleaned by rubbing them with a cloth and mixtures of herbs including the ashes of burnt rosemary.
- The Ancient Greeks adopted the idea of bathing from the Hindus who were familiar with the benefits of bathing as early as 3,000 years ago.
- A Short History of Bathing before 1601
- The stench of medieval Europe still echoes today
- Bathing during the Middle Ages
- The Lifestyle of Medieval Peasants
- Medieval medicine
- The Last Years of Medieval Europe
- Middle Ages Hygiene
- History of Perfume
*photo by Dr. Hemmert on flickr
- Was World War II good for the American economy?
Put aside Bob Higgs’s points about restricted consumption, Alexander Field has another angle:
Had trends persisted in the absence of war, employment, TFP, and labor productivity would all likely have been higher in 1942…housing construction was robust and growing in 1939, 1940, and 1941, and when the postwar housing boom emerged with full force in 1946, it took off from where it had been arrested in 1941. Since the failure of residential construction to revive fully was one of the major contributors to the persistence of low private investment spending during the Depression, its signs of revival in the years immediately preceding the war suggest that had peace continued, investment, output, and employment growth would have continued as the economy reapproached capacity.
…There continues to be a popular perception that war is beneficial to an economy, particularly if it does not lead to much physical damaged to the country prosecuting it. The U.S. experience during the Second World War is the typical poster child for this point of view. Detailed research into the effects of armed conflict, however, has usually produced more nuanced interpretations…In that spirit, the research reported in this chapter represents a revisionist approach to the analysis of the Second World War, although one that is not entirely unanticipated.
- He Won
In The Looming Tower, the Pulitzer-winning history of al-Qaeda and the road to 9/11, author Lawrence Wright lays out how Osama bin Laden’s motivation for the attacks that he planned in the 1990s, and then the September 11 attacks, was to draw the U.S. and the West into a prolonged war—an actual war in Afghanistan, and a broader global war with Islam.
Osama got both. And we gave him a prolonged war in Iraq to boot. By the end of Obama’s first term, we’ll probably top 6,000 dead U.S. troops in those two wars, along with hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans. The cost for both wars is also now well over $1 trillion.
We have also fundamentally altered who we are. A partial, off-the-top-of-my-head list of how we’ve changed since September 11 . . .
- We’ve sent terrorist suspects to “black sites” to be detained without trial and tortured.
- We’ve turned terrorist suspects over to other regimes, knowing that they’d be tortured.
- In those cases when our government later learned it got the wrong guy, federal officials not only refused to apologize or compensate him, they went to court to argue he should be barred from using our courts to seek justice, and that the details of his abduction, torture, and detainment should be kept secret.
- We’ve abducted and imprisoned dozens, perhaps hundreds of men in Guantanamo who turned out to have been innocent. Again, the government felt no obligation to do right by them.
- The government launched a multimillion dollar ad campaign implying that people who smoke marijuana are complicit in the murder of nearly 3,000 of their fellow citizens.
- The government illegally spied and eavesdropped on thousands of American citizens.
- Presidents from both of the two major political parties have claimed the power to detain suspected terrorists and hold them indefinitely without trial, based solely on the president’s designation of them as an “enemy combatant,” essentially making the president prosecutor, judge, and jury. (I’d also argue that the treatment of someone like Bradley Manning wouldn’t have been tolerated before September 11.)
- The current president has also claimed the power to execute U.S. citizens, off the battlefield, without a trial, and to prevent anyone from knowing about it after the fact.
- The Congress approved, the president signed, and the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a broadly written law making it a crime to advocate for any organization the government deems sympathetic to terrorism. This includes challenging the “terrorist” designation in the first place.
- Flying in America now means enduring a humiliating and hassling ritual that does little if anything to actually make flying any safer. Every time the government fails to catch an attempt at terrorism, it punishes the public for its failure by adding to the ritual.
- American Muslims, a heartening story of success and assimilation, are now harassed and denigrated for merely trying to build houses of worship.
- Without a warrant, the government can search and seize indefinitely the laptops and other personal electronic devices of anyone entering the country.
- The Department of Homeland Security now gives terrorism-fighting grants for local police departments across the country to purchase military equipment, such as armored personnel carriers, which is then used against U.S. citizens, mostly to serve drug warrants.
I’m relieved that bin Laden is dead. And the Navy SEALs who carried out the harrowing raid that ended his life have my respect and admiration. And for all the massive waste and abuse our government has perpetrated in the name of fighting terrorism over the last decade, there’s something satisfying in knowing that he was killed in a limited, targeted operation based on specific intelligence.
But because of the actions of one guy, we allowed all the bullet points above to happen. That we managed to kill him a decade after the September 11 attacks is symbolically important, but hardly seems worth the celebrations we saw across the country last night. There was something unsettling about watching giddy crowds bounce around beach balls and climb telephone polls last night, as if they were in the lawn seats at a rock festival. Solemn and somber appreciation that an evil man is gone seemed like the more appropriate reaction.
Yes, bin Laden the man is dead. But he achieved all he set out to achieve, and a hell of a lot more. He forever changed who we are as a country, and for the worse. Mostly because we let him. That isn’t something a special ops team can fix.
- Macro of the Day
- Thermochromic Urinal Makes Peeing Fun
Alright, cat’s out of the bag. The truth is we’ve always enjoyed drawing stuff with pee. A gross use of body fluid, yes, but creativity has no bounds. Such a mindset likely produced the Thermochromic Urinal pictured below. There’s scant detail about who made it or where it’s used. Judging by the photographic evidence, however, it does take a fresh approach to the concept of a urinal.
Read the rest of Thermochromic Urinal Makes Peeing Fun
- President Simba
[At last night's White House Correspondents' Dinner, President Barack] Obama … mauled the media, especially Fox News, suggesting some news organizations maybe attaching undue importance to the ‘birther’ issue. The president said if his original birth certificate issued by Hawaii was not enough to convince everyone, he was issuing a birth video.
He then showed a clip from the animation movie Lion King. And then came the punch line. When the footage was shown, he said: “I want to make it clear to the Fox News table: That was a joke. That was not my birth video. That was a children’s cartoon.”
- Yugoslavian Monuments
These structures were commissioned by former Yugoslavian president Josip Broz Tito in the 1960s and 70s to commemorate sites where WWII battles took place (like Tjentište, Kozara and Kadinjača), or where concentration camps stood (like Jasenovac and Niš). They were designed by different sculptors (Dušan Džamonja, Vojin Bakić, Miodrag Živković, Jordan and Iskra Grabul, to name a few) and architects (Bogdan Bogdanović, Gradimir Medaković…), conveying powerful visual impact to show the confidence and strength of the Socialist Republic.
- Charts: Who Pays Teachers Most For their Time?
This chart from the futurejournalismproject tries to capture how much teachers work in various countires and how much they're paid. I'm sure there are issues with the calculations or presentation, but perhaps not entirely disqualifying ones. What's the chart get wrong or right?
- Font Collection: 10 Free Thin Sans Serif Fonts
A thin sans serif font can help produce elegant and modern typography designs. However, you have to be careful at smaller font sizes because fonts with narrow widths can become illegible or hard to read when the characters are too small. If you’re on the hunt for thin/light/narrow san serif fonts, check out these 10 free fonts. Continue reading…
Continue Reading: Font Collection: 10 Free Thin Sans Serif Fonts
- Mum, what’s sex?
Julia Sweeney considered herself an enlightened, sex-is-no-big-deal kind of parent. But that was before an innocent question about tadpoles prompted The Conversation
One evening, on a school night, when my daughter Mulan was nine, we were eating dinner together at our favourite Thai restaurant. It was autumn, over two years ago, and writing about it now I see that Mulan and I interacted much like two roommates. We ate out a lot. We had a handful of favourite places. When you’re a single mother who primarily takes her daughter to dinner at restaurants (my meagre defence: I was spending four days a week driving her to gymnastics after school – 45 minutes each way – so, who had time to cook?), it’s easy to think of yourselves as a couple. You eat, you talk, and sometimes you just stare at each other in a stupor of familiarity.
At the restaurant, we know the owner and chef, who this night recommended the frogs' legs in hot peppers. We politely declined. Mulan told me her class had begun studying frogs. In fact, she revealed she had a report to do, and began to explain the basic parameters: "So, Mum. First, the frogs lay eggs, in a pond, and then the eggs turn into tadpoles and the tadpoles turn into more frogs."
I squinted my eyes. Biology – and science in general – was not my academic strong suit. Only recently had I discovered my own deep, neglected interest in science, and had been scrambling to catch up with the 21st century. Whenever Mulan told me of anything she was learning about science, I’m sure I wore an expression of astonished bewilderment and surprise. My 12 years of Catholic schooling did not dwell long on biology (God didn’t want us thinking about that) and avoided the subject of reproduction almost entirely.
Eventually I mumbled a response: "Uh… yeah. I think so. I think, though, that it's probably just the females that lay the eggs, and then the males fertilise them – although I don't know for sure – and there are probably all kinds of species of frogs with different ways of doing things. But yeah, in general, I'm willing to bet, the females are the ones with the eggs. Or something like that."
"Huh?" Mulan said, listening carefully. "But, what does 'fertilise' mean?"
I said, "Oh, the males have this substance inside them, and it's like a co-ingredient, called sperm. They sprinkle, or squirt it on the eggs. That's how they get fertilised. It takes both the female's eggs and the male's sperm, and together they make the new tadpoles." I was really proud of myself for the word "co-ingredient". That was good.
“Soooooo, only the females have the eggs.” Mulan said, her eyes wandering to the ceiling, taking this all in.
“Yes,” I said.
“Humans, too?” she asked.
Let me freeze this scene for a moment and say that I considered myself an enlightened, open-minded, sex-is–no-big-deal parent, yet I hadn’t truly prepared myself for this conversation. I had read a few parenting books and they all seemed to advise the same thing, which was, when your child starts to ask you about sex, or really anything that is complicated and multifaceted, just answer the exact question they ask. Nothing more. Don’t elaborate. Don’t over-share.
In that sense, I suppose I was prepared for this crucial rite-of-passage. I wasn’t going to stop and take her hand, get all watery-eyed and explain about the beautiful way we create more children in the world. That wasn’t what she was asking. She just wanted to know if human women had the eggs. The answer was clear and unambiguous.
"Yes," I said. I deliberately forced a pause. I tried to think of some other subject to move on to. I took a big bite of the mango salad we'd just been served.
Mulan asked, "Where do women keep their eggs?"
“Well,” I said, “we women have evolved to have our own pond, right inside our own bodies. We lay our eggs in this pond, which is so convenient when you think about it compared with frogs, because we don’t have to worry about any competing eggs. It’s a pond of our own.”
A pond of one’s own. I imagined Virginia Woolf contentedly sitting in a pond of her own. And then drowning.
“Where is it?” Mulan asked, her eyes bigger than ever.
"It's in our lower abdomen, inside us, below our belly button, above our vagina." I had managed to be specific and totally vague all at once. Perfect.
“But… how do the eggs get fertilised?”
“By the man,” I said, thinking why did I use the phrase “the man”? Aside from its conformist big-business connotations, I had possibly implied that there was only one man, some special Man who was used only for this purpose. Creepy and weird. And, of course, incorrect.
Thankfully, at this moment the rest of the food was delivered. I scooped up some green beans with chilli and hoped the subject would change. I realised my eyes were darting around, which reminded me of my own mother. I hated how awkward and embarrassed and offputting my mother became about the subject of sex. Now my own body was displaying the same indications of unease. I took a deep breath and smiled in a deliberately relaxed way at Mulan.
"But how does the sperm get in to fertilise the eggs?" she asked.
I said, "Oh, yes. That. Well, the sperm comes out of the man's penis and it goes into the woman's vagina. This happens when the two do what's called, 'have sex'. And that's where the egg – there's usually only one in the woman's pond at a time – gets fertilised." Only after the fact did I realise that I had said the words penis and vagina and sex in a strained, sotto voce tone. This was also something my own mother would have done. Self-hate swelled in my breast.
Mulan had put down her fork. Her face was twisted in disgust. "That's where humans make a baby, where you go to the bathroom? Mum!!" Her voice was rising.
"Yes," I said, looking around conspiratorially. "I know," I sighed. "It is weird. That part can take some getting used to.”
“Gross.” Mulan mumbled.
“Yeah, I know. As they say, it’s like having a waste treatment plant right next to an amusement park. Terrible town planning.”
“What?” Mulan said.
“The thing is,” I went on, “that’s how we evolved. That’s where it all happens. And even though going to the bathroom and having sex are both in the general same area, they are actually totally separate.” I wanted to add, “Except for some people, where psychologically it gets all mushed together, which is creepy in my opinion but certainly not morally wrong, and is actually understandable given the proximity.” But that seemed to be getting ahead of the conversation, so I tried to change the direction slightly.
“Like your nose and your mouth,” I ventured. “They’re both close to each other on your face, but you wouldn’t stick a bean sprout up your nose.” Mulan gave me a pathetic lower-teeth-revealing smile and grunted a charity chuckle. Then she got back to the topic at hand.
“But Mum,” Mulan asked with tractor-beam focus, “how can this ever happen? I mean, men and women, they can never be naked together.”
"Well," I explained, "when people are older – much, much older than a kid – when they are older and they both decide they want to, in very certain circumstances, like if they're in love with each other, well, then, they can be naked together."
"But how do they know when?" Mulan asked. "Does the man say, 'Is now the time to take off my pants?'"
We held each other’s gaze for a moment.
“Yes,” I said. “That’s exactly what they say.”
To my great relief Mulan seemed content with that knowledge and began to eat with gusto. We moved on to other topics of conversation.
As we drove home Mulan seemed unusually quiet. I glanced at her from time to time in my rear-view mirror. She was sitting in the back seat, staring out of the window. The pavements were filled with people.
Suddenly Mulan laughed.
“What?” I asked.
“Oh Mum, you’re going to laugh so hard.”
"Because, Mum, you can't believe what I thought you said back at the restaurant. It's so funny. I thought you said that the man puts his penis in a woman's vagina – inside of it – and that's how people make a baby. Isn't that hysterical?"
“That is what I said,” I said.
“Oh,” Mulan said. Her face had turned from gaiety to seriousness. There was a long quiet time. She stared out of the window, taking all this in.
Mulan asked, “What if two people just walked up to each other on the street and started doing it?” Our eyes met in the mirror. Her eyebrows were furrowed and she broke our gaze and looked at some people standing on the street.
At this point, I decided the best way to approach these questions was to pretend I was some dispassionate anthropologist discussing the mating habits of an animal other than our own. “The human species is very private when it comes to sex. Humans are unusual in this way. They have sex in private.”
Mulan asked, “What if you went to a party and there were a bunch of men and women and they all just started doing it? Would that ever happen?”
“No,” I lied. “That would never happen. Because humans are so private.”
My back stiffened. I realised it stiffened like my grandmother's, my mother's mother. I was reaching back, farther back than my own mother's discomfort and into the graves of the next generation of discomfort. The dead live.
“Mum,” Mulan said gravely, “have you ever done this?”
“Yes,” I said, flatly.
“But Mum, you can’t have children.”
“That’s true,” I said.
“Well, you never have to do that again,” Mulan sighed. She sounded relieved.
After a moment I said, “Well, if you really love someone and you’re an adult, then you want to do it, even if you can’t have a baby.”
Silence. Mulan stared out of the window deep in thought. “But Mum, how can people do that? I mean, how do their legs go? You know, not everyone can do the splits.”
Ah, the perspective of the proud gymnast. Mulan became somewhat fixated on the role of legs in sex. She could not picture how it was physically possible, even if someone could do the splits. Finally, I said, "Mulan, people figure the legs out. They just do."
"Oh," Mulan said, taking this in. She quieted down and we got home. When we got out of the car, our cat Val was sitting in the front garden soaking up the last bits of sunlight. Val rolled on to her back.
“What about cats? How do they do it?”
“It’s basically the same idea,” I said.
“But how do their legs go?” Mulan wondered.
“They, well, I think the male stands behind the female and… and… they just do, Mulan,” I said, exasperated, and disappointed that “They just do” was the best I could do.
Once inside the house, our dog Arden, delirious with glee at our return, jumped up and licked my hand. "What about dogs?” Mulan asked, having never considered the possibility before.
"Same thing," I said. "It's basically the same thing for all mammals."
“But what about their legs?” she asked again.
"Look," I said, now desperately tired of this subject, "I've lost my ability to describe it. Maybe we can look on Wikipedia or something and it will show us."
So, we went to my office and got online. I Googled "cats mating". And, of course, on YouTube there were thousands of videos. We watched a couple of them. Mulan was riveted. She moved her face closer and closer to the monitor.
"Now what about dogs?" she asked. We watched a few dog videos. She put her hand on my arm.
Here, dear reader, we come to another moment out of time. Such as when you’re in an accident and time slows to a crawl. I could hear my own breathing as if I were suddenly wearing a space suit from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Mulan’s hand seemed to be reaching out to my arm in slow motion: frame-by-frame. I believe I remember it this way because it wasn’t until then, until this small intimate gesture, this gesture of familiarity and of safety, that I realised where I’d led us.
“Mum, do you think there would be any videos of humans mating on the internet?”
I am a monster. An incompetent monster of a mother.
I smiled and said, firmly, "No. There would never be anything like that. Because humans are so private." And then, "Hey, how about some ice-cream?"
Which, of course, was teaching her that when questions about sex got awkward, food was truly the answer.
Later that night, Mulan asked, “What about Roger and Don – how do they do it?”
“I… I don’t know,” I said.
All right, I was thrown. I thought I would have more time between frogs and same-sex intercourse than just an hour or two. I was out of my depth.
Mulan went to the bathroom and took a little longer than usual to come out. Later she said, casually, “I think I know how Roger and Don do it.”
“Oh yeah?” I said.
"Yeah, Mum, there's another hole down there, where you also go to the bathroom. Maybe… you know, maybe they use that."
That’s my girl, my Mulan, age nine, inventing anal sex. Smart, inquisitive, problem-solving, Spock-like in objectivity and with a total lack of squeamishness. Bless her heart.
“Maybe,” I answered, and shrugged my shoulders to indicate: see how casual and easygoing I am?
“But Mum,” she said, “what about two girls? What about Eileen and Karen, how do they do it?”
“I… I…” I answered meekly, beaten.
“Why don’t you call Karen and ask her?” Mulan asked me.
“Nah,” I said, pretending to read the newspaper.
Mulan put her face a few inches from mine. She looked disgusted with me. "Mum, aren't you even curious?"