Saturday, June 27, 2009

Tales of the Weird

When I was in high school, my friends and I used to play a little game. We would stand outside the cafeteria doors before lunch, and roll pennies and the occasional nickel down the crowded hallway. The objective was to see whose coin could go the farthest before it hit someone or was stepped on. This was before the Gameboy was invented, so we did what we could to amuse ourselves. Like most schools the hall emptied out quickly when the bell rang, so that signaled the end of the game. So on this one day, I found my arm cocked back to throw when the bell rang and, what the hell, I threw it anyway. This is how I got to see my coin roll the entire 70 or so feet of the hallway and disappear into a stress crack in the opposite wall.

The gross improbability of this result led to my first independent hypothesis about the nature of the universe. One could roll pennies down an empty hallway, aiming at that crack, and never hit the mark before one’s arm fell off from fatigue. My 17-year old mind pondered this, and thought that maybe, just maybe, the universe existed in such a way that any possible act, no matter how improbable, would occur somewhere at least once before the end of time.

What happened between last Thursday night and Friday evening brought this back to me. See if you can come up with a number small enough to measure the probability of this chain of events.

Last Thursday night, there was a thunder storm. A bolt of lightning struck close enough to overload the two circuit breakers that feed power to outlets in the back yard. On Friday morning, I discovered that the land line phones were knocked out too. The handsets reported “line in use” on the display, but there was nothing but a few crackles on the line, like it was disconnected. As unusual as this was, I assumed that the storm had knocked out a transformer or a repeater or something. By evening, when nothing had changed, I began to suspect that the problem was in the house. I disconnected all the devices from the wall jacks and replaced them one by one, starting with the wireless base station. The problem persisted until I disconnected that and connected another phone. At first, I thought the base station was fried, but upon examining the RJ11 connector that plugged into the wall mount, I saw that it had a blackened look. One of the two contacts was completely missing. I immediately assumed that it had been fried in some kind of an electrical short. Much to my surprise, what at first looked burnt turned out to be something entirely different.

Last Fall, my kitchen was renovated. The renovation included a granite counter top, and moving a wall-mount for the telephone from the kitchen into the adjoining dining room. While this work was taking place, the Panasonic wireless phone system was removed from the wall mount and plugged in elsewhere. A plastic bracket was removed to convert the base station from a wall mount to a table-top configuration.

Some time after the wiring part of the renovation was complete, there was an ice storm, and the accompanying power failure lasted more than a day. This is how my only analog phone with wired hand set wound up plugged into the wall mount in place of the wireless system. This configuration was allowed to remain in place until Spring.

Meanwhile, the renovation completed, the contents of the kitchen were moved back into the cabinets. In the process, the bracket for the Panasonic base station found its way into the DJD (Designated Junk Drawer) in the new kitchen. Also during this process, a bottle of soy sauce was dropped and smashed on the granite. The junk drawer happened to be part open at the time, and the contents were splattered. During the clean up, several drops that had landed on a 3/4” x 2” upper surface of the plastic phone bracket were missed and remained there. Eventually, the bracket and the base station were reunited with the wall mount in its new home in the Dining Room. Once again, the semi-dry and sticky drops of soy sauce were overlooked.

Prior to the electrical storm, it had been raining here for a week straight; the humidity was through the roof. For the two days leading up to the thunderstorm, the temperature hit 80 degrees for the first time this Summer. At some point, the sticky soy sauce “melted” and dripped directly onto the phone jack. This was the dark substance on the RJ11 connector. Did the vibration from the clap of thunder cause it to fall or was it already there? Was the salt content sufficient to corrode the contact, or was there a final push from a current spike caused by the lightning? Was it sheer coincidence that the phone crapped out at the same time as the lightning strike? I’ll never know, but no matter how you add it up, it’s just weird.


At 9:54 PM, Anonymous rita said...

This is where I want to play the spooky music..."whoooooo, whooooo"
Just kidding :) Coincidences can be weird! Electrical storms seem to heighten the imagination effect because unusual things happen & our senses are on high alert. I remember when lightning struck a tree in A Cul-De-Sac I lived in A few years ago. It traveled down the tree & blew out the roots. All this weird stuff happened. The concrete covers for the water meters in the whole Cul-De-Sac shot into the air. Our phone blew of the hook & we lost our freezer. The house closest to the strike had its finishing nails pulled out of the wall by the electrical energy. The weirdist thing was "Missy" the neighborhood dog ran down to the highway & was hit by a car & killed. The whole neighborhood was freaked out for days.

At 6:18 PM, Blogger Rev. Barky said...

If I were not an electrical engineer I might have given up on reading the entire post. Ah the ol' soy sauce on the connections bane - I know it well. Soy sauce is one of the most common agents in electronic shorting phenomena. Benjamin Franklin noted in his memoirs: "A Layden jar beset with a dark salty condiment liberates not its vital ether". And so it is that fate has made it voice heard - but not over your telephone system. I must give you my recipe for Panasonic Chow Mein.


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