Why do packages of Q-Tips say you aren't supposed to insert them in your ear? Some people fear death. Others fear, more specifically, a painful death. What we fear is a silly death, like maybe a banana-peel accident or a plucked-nose-hair infection or, worst of all, death by Q-Tip. It doesn't get any worse than that. One minute you're using a Q-Tip while riding a pogo stick, the next ...
The Q-Tips package specifically instructs you to "stroke swab gently around the outer surfaces of the ear without entering the ear canal." Right. Soon we'll probably see cigarettes with the instructions, "Let dangle from lips in Gary Cooperish fashion. Do not ignite."
We called Chesebrough-Pond's Inc., the maker of the product, and asked if the company seriously thinks that Q-Tips are not designed specifically to stick into the ear to clean out ear wax. A spokesman said, "Our feeling is that nothing should be entering the ear canal. Clearly this is a misuse of the swab."
The swabs were called Baby Gays when introduced by inventor Leo Gerstenzang in 1923. He supposedly saw his wife use a toothpick with a cotton ball on the end to apply stuff to their baby. A couple of years later he changed the name to Q-Tips Baby Gays, and then they became just Q-Tips, though no one is sure what the Q stands for. "Quality," the company suggested. Maybe the shape of the swab's tip is vaguely like a lower-case "q" in some funky script.
Chesebrough-Pond's bought Q-Tips, Inc. in 1962 and, sometime in the 1970s, added the warning about not sticking the thing in your ear. The company has no details on why they did this, and our search of the records turns up no publicized case of anyone with a swab in the brain. Something must have happened, and Chesebrough-Pond's didn't want to be blamed. It's safe to say that the day it became impermissible to put a Q-Tip in your ear was the day America became litigious.
Responsible journalism forces us to note that it is, indeed, dangerous to stick things in your ear. In fact, there probably ought to be a Surgeon General's warning on a Q-Tips box, as well as No Q-Tips sections in restaurants and airplanes. You can never be too careful.
Why don't people give frankincense or myrrh as gifts anymore? The bigger question is why the Magi who went to Bethlehem didn't have a better sense of baby presents. Babies like rattles and stuffed animals and mobiles. But frankincense? Myrrh? Did they give the Kid some matches, too? And why are there no more Magi these days?
Frankincense is just what it sounds like, incense, the "frank" being a sort of superlative. Myrrh is similar: gummy, resin-like stuff that comes from certain types of trees. Frankincense and myrrh still are burned in religious ceremonies around the world, but the incense industry has made them just one of innumerable scent options. We called several health-food and botanical shops and they said they do a fair business with frankincense and myrrh. They certainly sound like they smell good.
According to the book "Spiritual Cleansing," by Draja Mickaharic, frankincense "is really wonderful for attracting a beneficial influence to a place." The book adds, "Myrrh fumes bring the astral realms closer to the earth, opening up the spiritual doorway so the influences attracted by the frankincense may manifest."
No thanks, we'll just take what's in the third chest over there -- ah, yes, the gold.
Why is there no creature that can both fly and swim, and also run really fast, and inflict poisonous bites, and stink horribly like a skunk, and so on? We posed this question to Stephen Jay Gould, the Harvard biologist and one of the world's foremost theorists of evolution. That's a bit like calling up the president of the United States and asking him what's the capital of South Dakota. No matter how simplistic our questions, we go right to the top, and for some reason these people usually return our phone calls (it helps to identify oneself as Ted Koppel).
So anyway, why doesn't evolution cause creatures to develop more and more survival mechanisms? Wouldn't a porcupine that also stank like a skunk have greater evolutionary success? Why don't gorillas have better camouflaging? Why don't humans have huge mouths that can strain krill from the ocean? Other than Morton Downey Jr., that is?
"It costs energy and time to build structures," Gould told us. "Evolution isn't an optimizing principle."
That sums it up pretty well. We all tend to think of evolution as a progression in which slime gradually turns into bacteria, which then gradually turns into bugs, which then turn into rats, which then become monkeys, which then become Neanderthal people, until finally we reach the evolutionary zenith, a creature who spends one hour a day hunting and gathering and the remainder trying to set the clock on the VCR. But if that were so, why are there still mollusks that live in mud at the bottom of the ocean? What about liver flukes? Colonic parasites? Where is their ambition?
As Gould said, evolution isn't optimizing. It operates more on the theory of "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Liver flukes have a great life. They eat. They poop. They reproduce. As far as nature is concerned that's a life every bit the equal of Ben Franklin's.
It certainly happens that new traits evolve, but they tend to streamline a creature's design, to make it better-suited for one particular environment -- to become, in essence, a more "lung-flukish" lung fluke -- rather than add on all kinds of additional expensive new features and options as though it were the new Town Car out of Detroit.
(Editor's note: Why Things Are is entirely computer-generated, using a new software program called Auto-Know. This product is not available in stores.)