Why can't you dry clothes in a microwave?

Fire. Death. That sort of thing.

Even as we speak, though, smart scientists are trying to develop a microwave clothes dryer, but there are some wrinkles to be ironed out.

"The biggest problem is that you've got to have an adequate sensor system to determine that it's dry before it gets too dry. We don't want to have to install fire extinguishers," says Robert LaGasse, executive director of the International Microwave Power Institute.

You see, microwaves aren't like hot air. A hot-air dryer can parch your clothing but the temperature never will rise above about 140 degrees. A standard microwave device, however, doesn't operate on low power. It goes full-blast. The advantage is that food (or clothes) heats up really fast and saves you time. But because the microwaves dump more and more energy into whatever they're heating, the only way to control the heating is by shutting the machine off. If you leave a cup of coffee in a microwave too long, it simply will boil off. But your drawers, as we like to call them, might get so hot they'd spontaneously combust.There's also the metal problem. We all know that if you put metal in a microwave, something terrible like Three Mile Island will happen. Clothes have metal in them. Zippers. Buttons. Rivets. The zippers are particularly troublesome because sparks can generate in the spaces between the teeth.

What the microwave people are hoping is that clothing manufacturers will help them out by making clothes that are ... yes ... microwave safe.

"We recognize the market for it. Initially it's going to be like any other consumer device. The cost will be high. But it will come down," says John F. Gerling of Gerling Laboratories in Modesto, Calif., which is developing such a dryer. He predicts, "The clothing manufactureres and fabric manufactures will also produce products that are labeled microwave compatible."

Why do the 1991 cars go on sale by October 1990 at the latest?

Actually, it's gotten much more ridiculous than that. When did the 1991 Ford Explorer hit the market? In February 1990. Ford also put out the '91 Escort in April '90.

Perhaps this is Detroit's latest strategy for regaining its lost dominance. The Japanese cars may be better, but our cars are on sale sooner. Our cars are so hot off the presses they're practically from the future.

To understand this jumping-the-gun phenomenon, we must go back to the early days of the automobile. (The camera pans across a sepia-toned photo of a car that looks like it can handle a curve at 12 miles an hour, tops.) The National Automotive Show was held every January in New York City, and the new models went on display for sales during the spring. Not only was car-selling seasonal, so was driving. People put their cars away in the winter because the roads weren't safe. Not until 1924 was the first road cleared after a winter storm, we are told by Jim Wren, spokesman for the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association of the United States.

The Great Depression changed the timetable. Car production always had moved in cycles, with large numbers of workers laid off during the slow months. On Jan. 31, 1935, President Roosevelt vowed that this would change, and he and the auto industry agreed to start selling the new models in the fall rather than wait until the winter or spring. The annual National Automotive Show was moved to November, then October. This resulted in two peak selling seasons, fall and spring, and "a greater regularity of work and lessening the spread between the peaks and valleys of employment," as Roosevelt put it.

The October introduction of cars has remained the tradition, though Ford is a pioneer in breaking the rules. In the early summer of 1963 the company introduced a new car, the Mustang. Some regular folks call that a '64 Mustang but in the business it's called a '63 1/2.

Why is the championship of college football decided by a poll conducted by the Associated Press wire service?

We have made it a personal crusade to pound home the idea that there is no championship in college football, and that to accept this fact will be good for the soul of our nation, which at the moment is obsessed with ratings, rankings and lists in general. We're so dang linear. So hierarchical. In fact, the United States is probably ranked No. 1 among the hierarchical-thinking countries of the world.

As you know, the "champion" of college football is merely the team that ends up No. 1 in the various polls. There are lots of these polls, but only four are cited in the National Collegiate Athletic Association's official records: the Associated Press, the United Press International, the Football Writers Association of America and the National Football Foundation's Hall of Fame.

In the old days, the polls frequently disagreed. In 1964, Notre Dame was the champ according to the Hall of Fame, but AP and UPI picked Alabama and the football writers sided with Arkansas. The system was more honest then: The voters disagreed because there was no conclusive way to judge the merit of teams that played in different conferences and never met on the field.

Today there are more intersectional rivalries (teams jetting from coast to coast) and more games are televised, and this has created the illusion that the rankings make more sense, that the judgment of merit is more empirical, more scientific.

But it still is a ridiculous conceit to pick the No. 1 team. It's like a Zen exercise in contradictory truth. What's better, a 10-2 team with a tough schedule or an 11-1 team with an easier one? How do we interpret the fact that, in 1990, Notre Dame beat Southern Cal, but Southern Cal beat Penn State, and Penn State beat Notre Dame? And sure, the No. 1 team in the polls prior to Jan. 1, Colorado, beat some good teams, but it also lost to Illinois (which lost to Arizona, which lost to Washington, which lost to Colorado), and merely tied Tennessee, and only beat Missouri because on the winning drive the referees mistakenly gave them five downs instead of four. If you can make sense of it, you should open an ashram.

Getting back to our original question, the Associated Press poll generally is the most influential of the polls. This is a fairly recent phenomenon. Just a few years back, newspapers and TV networks tended to give equal publicity to the Associated Press and United Press International polls. A sportscaster would mention a team as being "No. 4 in the AP poll, and No. 6 in the UPI," for example. Now, the UPI rankings are almost never mentioned on TV.

Why? Possibly because UPI has had financial problems and doesn't have as many subscribers as the AP. But the more important factor is that the UPI poll is a survey of coaches, while the AP is a survey of sports writers and broadcasters. Journalists may have an egotistic reason to favor the poll that favors them.

One final thought: The UPI coaches refuse to rank teams that are on probation for violation of rules, but the AP voters rank those teams anyway. The problem is that teams that cheat also tend to win lots of games. The UPI's quest for morality results in irrelevancy. Certain teams that may actually win the "national championship" according to the AP poll are completely ignored in the UPI poll simply because a few of the players are on the Top 10 most-wanted list of the FBI.