Today, let's look at some American extremes and ask
what they mean. The University of Houston's College
of Engineering presents this series about the
machines that make our civilization run, and the
people whose ingenuity created them.
Here's a book: The Best
and Worst of Everything. Published in 1991,
it's a fine commentary on excesses of 20th-century
life. For example, of the 10 worst battles of all
time, 9 were in the 20th century. Try putting 1.8
million deaths in the WW-I Battle of Ypres into any
kind of perspective. Try understanding a personal
lawsuit award of 77 million dollars. Who can make
sense of 2 billion dollars in advertising for
Philip Morris in 1990?
The graduation rate for college athletes is one of
our most shameful statistics. A few universities
like Harvard and Gonzaga graduate over 90 percent
of their athletes. But 15 universities graduate
less than 20 percent, and big schools normally
graduate only 35 to 40 percent of their football
and basketball players.
Not everything is quite that horrible, but the
magnitudes we deal in are disorienting. The most
copies of a paperback sold: Benjamin Spock's
Baby and Child Care at 40 million.
Annual stud fees of 3.7 million dollars for a
thoroughbred; 160 million registered cars in
America; 200 million barrels of beer per year.
The book also profiles regional behavior. The worst
alcoholism and highest stress are in gambling
cities, Reno and Las Vegas. The least are in
college towns: State College, Pennsylvania,
Lawrence, Kansas, Bloomington, Indiana. Houston
ranks 8th in the arts, New York 1st. How did New
York slip in there ahead of us? I don't get it!
People speak most rapidly in Columbus, Ohio, and
most slowly in Sacramento, California. They're best
educated in Austin, Texas, and least educated in
Newark, New Jersey. You pay most for electricity in
New York. Atlanta has the worst crime rate. People
in Washington DC use the most psychiatric help, 1.4
visits per person per year. People in Pittsburgh
spend the most on deodorants, $8 a year. Here in
humid Houston we spend only $5 a year. The physical
size of cities is an odd statistic. Houston is the
fourth largest, and Anchorage is the largest of all
with 1732 square miles. Of course neither of us has
As figures tumble forth, two things are clear.
First, we feel the density of our technologies in
these extremes. Extremes are generated at the
boundaries of the technological world -- where
society struggles hardest to cope with change.
They also tell of our diversity. Despite the
homogenizing influence of the information media, we
sustain huge differences from place to place.
Despite the artificial world that technology
builds, we feel the effects of our physical
Why, for example, does Anchorage have the greatest
number of VCRs and the second lowest number of teen
pregnancies? Surely that says something about life
in a land of midnight sun. But as to just what it
says, I will not speculate.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds