Sydney J. Harris was a mid-20th-century newspaper columnist whose daily syndicated feature “Strictly Personal” sparked my own desire to write.  Harris often devoted his column to the topic “Things I Learned En Route to Looking Up Other Things” and today I will do the same. — Editor

□  Charles Dickens (1812-1870) penned a partial draft of a novel titled Tale of Three Cities, but he abandoned the effort after facing “the greatest difficulty” trying to incorporate the city of Cleveland, Ohio, into his epic saga about love, sacrifice and the French Revolution.

□  A group of bats is called a battalion; a group of starfish is called a constellation; a group of slugs is called a shellacking.

□  The first and so far only dog that has been canonized as a saint was St. Bernard in 1403.  Its attested miracles included heeling, speaking, and playing dead.

□  Before it was mass-produced, toilet paper was harvested from the limbs of shade trees, typically on the morning of November 1.  But storage and handling of the natural product was an issue, and demand always exceeded supply, thus an industry was born.

□  The reason former Vice President Al Gore is rarely seen in public these days is not due to ill health, but because Gore is responsible for making 24 billion connections a second on a gigantic internet switchboard installed in the basement of his Tennessee mansion.  “I wish I’d never invented the damn thing,” Gore told Vanity Fair in 2018.

□  It takes 40 gallons of maple sap to produce one gallon of the maple flavor contained in 132 million bottles of Aunt Jemima pancake syrup.

□  According to an obscure verse in Genesis, God created limes to keep lemons company.  But this made yellowberries jealous and they complained loudly to God.  So God punished the yellowberries for their jealousy by turning them blue.  To this day, blueberries are the only blue fruit or vegetable, friendless among the produce and still resentful of God.

□  One of the first wooden tools was a six-toothed implement that archaeologists believe was used by early humans as a hair comb or a fork, and often both.

□  Worcestershire sauce was created by an English merchant, Darius Butts, who originally named the sauce after himself.  But initial sales were so poor that, on the advice of friends, Butts reluctantly renamed his product.  “Let the ignorant bastards try to pronounce this,” Butts bitterly noted in his 1838 ledger.

□  After automobiles, the second-leading cause of death among opossums is sleep apnea.

□  While watching the Fox News Business Channel, I learned that climate change is a hoax engineered to make us join communes and stop eating meat; that Marriott Corporation is converting over thirty of its properties to Courtyard Communes; and that Burger King is introducing a new vegetable burger called The Global Whopper.

□  Several of these items have an element of Truth in them.  Truth (Tr) is Element 119 and is among the rarest of all substances.  Happy April.

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• Advice to children:  Tell Mommy that the biggest cookies in the jar disappeared first  because they were the easiest to grab.  Mommy will be forced to admire your reasoning.

• A taxi is a taxi, no matter how it is dispatched or who owns the vehicle.  Services like Uber and Lyft are no more about “ride-sharing” than my trips to the hardware store are about “getting some air.”  All rides-for-hire to the public should be subject to the same safety, passenger accessibility, driver accreditation and insurance regulations.  After that, if riders choose to put up with surge pricing and sharing personal data, let them.

• If I had it to do over again, I would have become a transportation engineer.  (Lion tamer would have been my second choice.)  I would have eventually found a job with AASHTO, the outfit that administers the interstate highway system.  My position of power would have allowed me to tackle urgent transportation problems such as north-south highways that have been foolishly posted with east-west direction signs.

Consider the following two examples.  I-376 in Pennsylvania (below left) heads south from Hermitage, PA for 55 miles and then turns eastward toward Monroeville, PA for 31 miles.  But the entire route is signed EAST-WEST.  The logical way to sign this would have been NORTH-SOUTH from Hermitage to Moon and EAST-WEST from Moon to Monroeville.

Or consider I-26 (at right) heading south-southeast from Kingsport, TN to Charleston, SC.  This highway runs seventeen miles south for every ten miles east.  Yet I-26 is also tagged EAST-WEST in its entirety, which gets especially confusing near Asheville, NC.  The signs should say NORTH-SOUTH at least as far southward as Spartanburg, SC, and preferably along its full extent.  There, I’ve had my say.  I can retire from AASHTO a happy man.

• If only I had been given some vocational guidance when I was young, I might have had more adventure in my life:

• I am not a hermit or pariah, but I really have no friends here in town.  In fact, I haven’t made a lasting friend in 40 years.  I follow our local Meetup site but few of those groups interest me.  (Men’s nude yoga?  Don’t think so.)  I considered starting a Meetup myself, for people who have trouble making friends.  But who would sign up?  Would I attend?  What kind of people can’t make friends?  Just sad and lonely losers!  I’ll stay home.

• Seriously, there is a local Meetup called Asheville Social Introverts Group.  They have weekly get-togethers in which they sit on opposite sides of a large room for an hour and read quietly to themselves.  OK, that last part wasn’t true.  Actually they play backgammon and chess — which interests me only slightly more than men’s nude yoga.  Maybe I should attend one of their events and bring along Yahtzee to amp up the excitement.

• Same old Donkeys.  Democrats are once again managing to shoot themselves in the foot, this time over standards of conduct, of all things.  They forced Al Franken to resign (who was probably more guilty of being a jerk than a sexual predator but we don’t really know) and stomped their feet in pharisaic unison trying to drive Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam out of office (who is definitely guilty of clumsy insensitivity).  The Dems obviously hope to make themselves look as squeaky-clean as possible so they can attack Donald Trump from the moral high ground.  What is amusing is that neither side of the electorate cares who is the holiest — certainly not Republicans, who will embrace anyone who is good for business and will stack the Supreme Court with righties, and not even Democrats, who would vote for Stormy Daniels if they thought she could beat Trump.  (Hey, she did once.)

• I found a recent malapropism in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette comment section to be uncannily accurate: “The truth will be reviled.”

• It is annoying when an online article about a time-sensitive topic (e.g., upcoming event or product review) bears no publication date.  Why would a site withhold this information? I would argue that — other than fiction, and even then — there is no writing that does not involve a time element; hence, to omit or conceal its date is disingenuous.

• What-Goes-Around-Stays-There Department:  Ironic how the money I used to spend on vodka every month now goes toward my prescription for Eliquis.  Different drug makers, similar profit margins (19% and 22% respectively).

• Windows 10 offers users a “high contrast” mode, supposedly to improve text readability.  On my laptop, the only thing this does is switch colors to black-and-white and make some lines thicker.  It has no effect on the contrast of text, not even the text in its own software.  Just one of the new things I keep discovering about getting older.

• I look and feel like I’ve aged a lot in the last year.  But clocks don’t run backwards and neither can I.  So I have started to paint again.  After several hours of work on just the background of my first project, I decided it was ugly and I painted over the whole thing.  Then I botched the next try and now I have to sand it all down.  I feel younger already.

• An old high-school friend recently sent me a list of our classmates who have passed away. I was stunned to see how many of our African-American peers were on the list, relative to their numbers in our class.   This led me to look up U.S. life expectancies for the year we were born: for white men and women, the figures were 67 and 73 years; for black men and women, 59 and 64 years.  I am still shocked by those numbers.

Today, though the situation has improved, the difference in life expectancy between whites and blacks is still 3.5 years.  Blacks aged 18-49 are twice as likely as non-Hispanic whites to die from heart disease, stroke and diabetes, and black infant mortality is twice as high.  And blacks are 50% more likely than whites to have no health insurance.

Affordable health care is not only an economic issue, it is a social justice issue.

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