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Genetics and Graphite Provide Scribe Fodder

A discussion of massive men and tiny tools

When last we met, the subject was athletic performance enhancement. I spoke of modalities for raising one's game, including surgery, lucky genetics and, of course, “eau de Canseco,” also known as anabolic steroids. That column contended that many world-class athletes are freaks—of nature, yes, but freaks nonetheless. In effect, they make use of performance-enhancing substances that happen to be produced by their own bodies rather than by a friend of a friend who knows a really good pharmaceutical chemist.

I'll continue to pull on that thread briefly here because within days of that column going to press, news broke that is directly related to the topic. After being lobbied by the union representing its players, the National Football League has agreed to do a study. The investigation will try to determine if football players, who represent the last remnants of a once thriving pre-Clovis North American population of megafauna, naturally have crazy high amounts of compounds that can make one large.

As the New York Times put it on April 21, “the union has said that football players, because of their size, might have a higher level of naturally occurring human growth hormone [HGH] and could be at risk of having false positives.” At which point, league officials would presumably stand on a chair to raise the level of HGH that counts as a positive test result in pigskin land.

All of which brings me back to the question I asked last time: “If users of performance-enhancing drugs are disqualified, should holders of performance-enhancing mutations be barred, too?” In other words—and I do not know the right answer to this question—why is it okay for a guy to have a body that makes a lot of hormone but not a buddy who makes a lot of hormone to inject?

Speaking of hormones and injections, have you seen “Museum of Copulatory Organs”? Part of the 18th Sydney Biennale in Australia, this collection of 3-D models of insect genitalia was the Ph.D. project of Colombian-born artist Maria Fernanda Cardoso.

Her previous claim to fame was a recreation of a 19th-century-style flea circus, which is paradoxically no small task. A blog post at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) Web site quotes Cardoso as saying, “It's one of the hardest things in life to train fleas, it took six years and it requires a lot of patience, no one knew how to train fleas anymore.” Actually the New York City subway system still trains fleas on a daily basis, judging by the number of passengers carrying tiny dogs around with them for some reason probably related to the effect of Paris Hilton on our culture.

According to the ABC article, Cardoso was inspired to pursue the copulatory organ project when she found within the flea literature this quote about the insects' penises: “It's not size that matters, it is shape.” Indeed, some insect penises come equipped with hooks that enable the ensconced male to grab a previous suitor's sperm packet and remove it from the female. I suggest that these hooks be called cuckholders.

Speaking of shaft-shaped devices used to convey information, have you visited the Cumberland Pencil Museum in England lately? It bills itself as “a great all weather attraction for the whole family,” although I would submit that a pencil museum is best appreciated when rain necessitates the cancellation of outdoor festivities. Fortunately for pencil aficionados, this is England.

The museum's Web site speculates that Cumberland locals first struck graphite some five centuries ago, when a violent storm uprooted trees and unearthed vast stores of the carbon allotrope. Shepherds soon used the material to mark their sheep. Meanwhile aspiring scribes wrapped sticks of graphite in sheep hides to make rudimentary pencils. This animal-implement relationship was clearly the source of the old adage “He was as write as a sheep.”

Pencils reached their pinnacle in the U.S. in the second half of the 20th century, when millions of high school students clutched No. 2 versions in their clammy hands to mark the answers on their SATs. Some who may not have done well still managed to earn sheepskins by carrying pigskins.

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This article was originally published with the title "Bred and Circuses."

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