Probably Not Covered Under Warranty

I love my Kindle. The display is easy to read. The case has a built-in light. And the power cord is, apparently, delicious.

It’s an e-reader and a chew toy.

My cat managed to do this last night without electrocuting himself. I need to remember to specify “no catnip, please” when buying electronics.

If you’re reading this on the 4th of July, why not check out my July 4th holiday post from last year?

My Cats Probably Don’t Have the Disease From the Movie “Contagion”

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This morning I found blood spatter stains on my bed. It wasn’t a huge amount – I was able to eliminate “maybe someone stabbed me while I was asleep” and “maybe I accidentally stabbed someone in my sleep” as theories right away. It was a collection of small drops that looked like the pattern a cat’s sneeze might make if a cat’s sneeze were made of blood, right in the spot where my cats like to sleep.

Spatter pattern from an apparent bloody cat sneeze
This week on CSI: Feline

I did what any rational person would do – I panicked. One of my cats was sneezing blood. I’m pretty sure that’s the first symptom of the disease from the movie Contagion. I knew exactly how the conversation with the vet would go:

“We’ll have to run some more tests, but it looks like your cat has the disease from the movie Contagion.”
“But… that was fiction.”
“That’s right. There’s no easy way to tell you this, but you and your cats are fictional characters.”
“Is it serious?”
“That depends on the genre. Based on your symptoms, the most likely candidates are Medical Thriller or Romantic Comedy. Can you think of anything in your recent history that might point to one or the other?”
“A guy made eye contact with me while I was being adorably clumsy in Whole Foods the other day.”
“This may be a romantic comedy. If so, you and the cats are fine, and the stain is from some red wine you spilled last night while watching an old black and white movie on TV.”
“But I wasn’t drinking wine last night. And I don’t have a TV in my bedroom.”
“Oh. Then you should probably focus on getting your affairs in order.”

I prepared for the appointment the way anyone would: I took a picture of the blood spatter on my phone to show to the vet, then I decided the phone display was too small, so I emailed the picture to myself and printed it out, but then I noticed that the color balance was off, so I took more pictures with my “good” camera, uploaded them to my laptop, and printed them. The vet appointment wasn’t quite as bad as I’d imagined, but in the end, she said the words I’d been dreading: “Give each cat one of these pills twice a day for a week.”

Wish me luck. I’ll need it.

The vet thinks Holly may have a sinus infection, but she’s not sure. We should get some lab results tomorrow.

Self-Referential Sunday: My New Posting Schedule

Themed days of the week (Caturday, Wordless Wednesday, etc.) seem to work well for other blogs, so I’ve decided to adopt that strategy to add some much-needed structure to this blog. From now on, I’ll be posting according to this schedule:

Pictures of the real thing are coming on Monday; here's a stuffed toy from tapirback.com to tide you over until then.

Maggot Mondays: Some of my most popular posts have been about insects, so as a special treat, Monday posts will be chock-full of high-resolution photos of everyone’s favorite fly larvae. Read Maggot Monday posts over breakfast for the perfect start to your week.

Terrible Tuesdays: Tuesday posts will be just awful — meandering, pointless diatribes full of spelling and grammar errors. Just thinking about them makes me cringe. But if you can force yourself to read through them, they’ll make the rest of the week — and, really, the rest of your life — seem so much better in comparison.

Washing-Machine Wednesdays: Each Wednesday, I’ll post a detailed account of every load of laundry I’ve done in the past week and an inventory of the dirty clothes I still need to wash. Wednesdays will also feature lint trap art and, of course, the weekly mismatched sock round-up.

Thunder Thursdays: Okay, I admit it — I stole the name Thunder Thursday from Kitten Thunder, which features a different guest cat every week. My Thunder Thursday posts will be similar, but with a twist — instead of just focusing on a guest cat by itself, I’ll explain in detail why my own cats are better. For the ultimate personalized blog-reading experience, send me a picture of your cat, and I’ll devote a Thursday post to pointing out its flaws.

Forgetful Fridays: Each Friday, I’ll post a few questions about some minor detail about your life; for example, I might ask who your first-grade teacher was, what street you lived on as a child, your first pet’s name, your social security number, the name of your bank, or your credit card number. Join in and show off your awesome memory skills!

Sugar Plum Saturdays: Remember Sugar Plum Awareness Month? Every Saturday, I’ll tell you how many days are left until December 1.

Self-Referential Sundays: Sundays on this blog are all about writing about this blog; for example, I might describe my blogging schedule or announce the grand opening of the Unlikely Explanations Store.

Valentine

I needed a theme for this year’s Valentine, so I decided to turn to my blog’s search term stats for inspiration. I reviewed the list carefully and narrowed it down to these three:

so many flies all of a sudden
how decomposed would marilyn monroe be
cat happy valentines day

I decided to go with the cat one. You’re welcome.

The Unlikely Explanations cats would like to wish you a grudgingly happy Valentine's Day

Want to do something special for your cats on Valentine’s Day? Serve them a lovely homemade chicken and gravy dinner and give them a nice gift, like a CatSofa or a Squeaker 3000 Robotic Toy Mouse.

Toxoplasmosis or Super PAC? How to Tell Them Apart

Fruit is good for you, but not after you drop it in your cat's litter box. (Image courtesy of the CDC

Have you found yourself acting contrary to your own self-interest lately? Do you ever get the feeling that some external force is exerting undue influence on your behavior? Well, you may be right. Scientists have theorized that infection by Toxoplasma Gondii, a parasite found in raw meat and cat feces (yum!) might affect human behavior. And it’s an election year in the US, so if you live here, you’re probably being bombarded by political advertisements created by Super PACs, a particularly hardy strain of political action committee. This simple comparison chart will help you figure out which one you’re dealing with:

T. Gondii Super PAC
A type of protozoa discovered independently in 1908 by scientists in Tunis and Brazil. A type of political action committee created in 2010 by the US Supreme court.
Forms unhealthy relationships with cats. Forms unhealthy relationships with political candidates.
Cats are unaware of the presence of T. Gondii and have little or no control over the parasite’s behavior. Candidates are aware of the presence of Super PACs and communicate with them via the media; however, they’re not allowed to “coordinate” with them.
Also infects humans, influencing them to behave in ways that benefit cats and, ultimately, T. Gondii. Influences humans to behave in ways that benefit  specific candidates and, ultimately, the Super PAC.
Also infects mice, causing them to behave in ways that make them easy prey for cats. Has no known effect on mice.
Millions of T. Gondii protozoa create cysts within the human body.* Millions of Super PAC dollars create commercials transmitted to television sets within the human home.
T. Gondii protozoa are difficult to see. Super PAC donors are often difficult to identify.
Makes you love cats. Makes you hate people.

It’s important to remember that most cats are not infected with T. Gondii and that infected cats are innocent victims. Also, cats are adorable. Don’t you just love cats?

*I actually have no idea how many T. Gondii it takes to cause an infection.

Everyone’s a Critic

In an effort to keep my New Year’s resolution to learn to draw, I’ve done a few practice drawings in the last week or so — and because I’m too lazy to put them away, I’ve been leaving them sitting out around the house. This morning, I woke up to discover that my cats had apparently studied my work during the night and decided to make a few enhancements. I’m not being entirely objective here, and I know they meant well, but still — I don’t really think the cat vomit was an improvement.

Artist's rendering. In real life, my cats look more like cats.

My Favorite Holiday Is Almost Here

Apologies to anyone who gets this in their mailbox twice — I’m not sure what happened the first time.

According to various unreliable sources on the Internet, tomorrow is National Clean Out Your Refrigerator Day. Although this holiday has some major flaws — I don’t get the day off from work, and I’m pretty sure I’m supposed to spend it cleaning out my refrigerator — it’s still my favorite. Why? Because its very existence implies that most people clean their refrigerators just once a year. I clean mine at least twice that often, which means my fridge is twice as clean as the national average, which makes me feel smug and superior, which is my favorite way to feel, which makes this my favorite holiday. Also, I don’t have to cook anything, buy presents, or give out candy. I don’t even have to clean out my refrigerator, really, because if anyone looks, I can just say I’m keeping stuff in there for National Science Experiment Week — which technically doesn’t exist, but who’s going to check?

Thunder and Holly operate the particle accelerator.

Actually, why isn’t there a National Science Experiment Week? Doesn’t that sound like it would be at least seven times as much fun as National Clean Out Your Refrigerator Day? I’d probably celebrate by running a small-scale version of that experiment where neutrinos probably didn’t travel faster than light, using the particle accelerator in my basement. Just kidding! I don’t have a basement. But I do have a particle accelerator, which I got for $19.95 at the pet store (it was marketed  as a cat toy, possibly because the particles that it accelerates are arranged in the form of a toy mouse). And my phone has a stopwatch app, so I’m all set — or I would be, if National Science Experiment Week really existed. But it doesn’t, so I guess I’ll just clean out my refrigerator instead.

A note to anyone reading this outside the US: apparently there is no International Clean Out Your Refrigerator Day. I’m sorry you have to miss out on all the fun.

We Have Nothing to Fear But Fear Itself. And, Of Course, Zombies.

Warning: this post contains many run-on sentences. Proceed with caution.

I once watched the movie 28 Days Later right before going to bed. This was a mistake; watching a bunch of fast-moving rage-filled zombies viciously attack and eat people makes it kind of difficult to drift gently off to sleep. Technically, I probably shouldn’t call them zombies, because they’re alive and infected with a disease instead of dead and, you know, zombified — but it says “zombie” right there on the movie poster, and regardless of what they are, you still don’t want one of them biting you, because then you’ll get infected and all you’ll ever want to do is attack and eat people, which will put a huge strain on your personal relationships and also probably make you lose your job because you keep skipping work to go on violent rampages and even when you do show up you spend most of your time biting people even though you’ve already been warned about your company’s no-biting policy several times. And then you won’t have an income, and although your living expenses will go down because you no longer have to buy food because you’re eating people instead, you still won’t be able to pay your rent, which means you’ll have to move in with your parents, which will be even more awkward than you might have imagined because even though your parents never expressed any strong opinions about cannibalism while you were growing up, they turn out to be pretty closed-minded about it. So of course you’ll eat them, which will seem like a good idea at the time but will mean there’s no one left to pay the rent on their house, so you’ll wind up out on the streets and even worse off than before.*

The point is, it’s a scary movie. So I was still a little frightened when I went to bed after watching it — which only got worse when I started hearing frantic scratching and clawing noises right outside my window. I’ve heard these noises before: directly under my bedroom window, there’s a screened-off entry to the crawl space under my house, and I sometimes hear sounds that turn out to be either an animal trying to get into the crawl space for warmth or an axe murderer trying to get into the house to kill me. So far, it’s mostly been animals:

Type of intruder Number of occurrences
opossum 58
raccoon 42
skunk 15
axe murderer 0
unknown 23
zombie 0

Whenever I hear these clawing noises, I remind myself that there haven’t been any confirmed axe murderers so far. But then I think, well, I guess that means we’re due for one, until I remember that probability doesn’t work that way: the likelihood of it being an axe murderer this time is independent of the number of previous axe murderer visits.** But I still haven’t gotten around to looking up axe murder statistics for my neighborhood; all I know is that I’ve never seen a report of one in my local newspaper, which means they must happen so frequently that they’re not considered newsworthy. Often, by the time I finish with that line of reasoning, the noise has stopped, so I count that as “unknown” in my ongoing intruder tally.

But this time is different. This time, I’m not thinking about axe murderers; I’m thinking about zombies. And while I know that zombies don’t exist, that doesn’t make me any less concerned about the possibility that there’s one right outside my window. So I’m lying there in the dark, afraid to look at the window because if I do then whatever is out there will become real. As long as I don’t look, it’s simultaneously a harmless raccoon and a murderous zombie in the same way that Schroedinger’s cat was both alive and dead, or dead and not-dead, which means that whatever’s outside my window is basically a Schroedinger’s zombie, which I can almost deal with except for the fact that “dead and not-dead” also describes a regular garden-variety zombie, which means there’s a zombie in my garden — and as I’m pursuing this train of thought, my cat jumps onto the bed. I’m so startled by this that I leap three feet into the air, still completely horizontal, like a cartoon character,*** which frightens the cat, who jumps even higher, which apparently scares off whoever or whatever is outside. And I suddenly realize that my zombie was an imaginary zombie, just like Schroedinger’s cat was an imaginary cat.

*Some of this is speculation on my part. The movie tends to focus less on long-term economic and social outcomes and more on short-term murderous rampages.

**Well, almost. An individual raccoon or axe murderer’s decision to visit a particular house is likely to be influenced by his or her prior experience with that house, so the events aren’t entirely independent.

***I’m pretty sure that’s impossible. But that’s how it felt.

The Door

So this is it, I thought. This is how I’m going to die.

A few years ago, I was working on a project that involved visits to several earthquake engineering labs across the country. Earthquake engineering labs are dangerous places – huge, cavernous rooms with specially-reinforced floors and walls, where tremendously strong, often violent forces are applied to specimens constructed from thousands of pounds of concrete and steel. But I wasn’t facing near-certain death because I was trapped beneath a pile of rubble in an engineering lab; in fact, I wasn’t in a lab at all. I was at home.
Continue reading “The Door”

Twelve Things I Wish I’d Known About Insects

Moebius Strip II by M.C. Escher
Moebius Strip II by M.C. Escher
Moebius Strip II by M.C. Escher
  1. Termites are endemic in California. Houses that are sold here are typically tented for termites during the period after the seller moves out and before the buyer moves in.
  2. Ants are endemic in California.
  3. Termites and ants are natural enemies that fight over territory. Ants living outside a house that has recently been tented for termites will move into the walls and feast on termite corpses, while you, the new homeowner, remain blissfully ignorant because none of the approximately three hundred people involved in the real estate transaction will have bothered to mention this simple fact to you.
  4. The gas used to kill termites has no effect on the ants that will later eat them.
  5. Eventually, the ants that move into your walls will either run out of termite meat or grow bored of their all-termite diet. At that point, they will begin to leave the walls to look for food sources inside the house.
  6. Continue reading “Twelve Things I Wish I’d Known About Insects”