The good thing about being old is you've lived to tell about it. It's an unavoidable fact of living that after a couple of decades of breathing one will have had several occasions to slip the mortal coil through one's own stupidity, and it's the folks who manage to tally up sheets of documented bogosity as long as a cow's leg that owe the most debt of gratitude to the forces of the universe.

When I was in engineering school in the early 1980's they were still interested in teaching some of us about big thick wires hung from aluminum towers you needed helicopters to visit. While my degree was to be in semiconductor physics, a discipline involving things so small everyone is sure magic is involved, I decided I wanted to learn how the other half lived. I wanted to see the great big turbines. The big ball bearings. The megavolts. The multi-Tesla magnets. The big boy toys.

So I took an elective in power generation and distribution systems.

The nice thing about power distribution and generation was the math was absolutely trivial compared to the partial differential world of quantum physics. All the answers involve the square root of two. Most power systems math can be summed this way: take a really big number and multiply by the square root of two. You can use three sometimes, but only when things are totally out of control.

Now that you know the math, you're ready to be an engineer.

For instance, take two really thick copper wires. Bolt them to a big piece of concrete on the floor. Send a couple hundred amps down them at once. The answer about what happens is something times something times the square root of two. It's cool to watch. The bolts fly out of the concrete sending shrapnel everywhere. The wires try to go to opposite ends of the universe taking the building and everything in their way with them. The smoke fills the lab and sets off the fire alarm. Enough ozone is created by the arcing to replenish the hole over Antarctica. Burning is everywhere.

The professor, who has been in the teacher's lounge the whole time, comes in and sees the lab wrecked and screams something about Lorentz. Then he goes to work in 7-Eleven selling Big Gulps because kids aren't supposed to be left alone with so many amps.

Why would anyone bolt big wires to concrete and shoot lots of juice down them? The answer is simple.


Women make boys want to burn things. And when there's nothing to burn, they want to blow things up. And when there's nothing to blow up, they make rail guns.

In our case, before our gun's self-immolition, the projectile (a thick aluminum bar we stole from the ceramic lab) imbedded itself in a cinder block wall. Despite our efforts we were not rewarded by being killed by our invention because God loved us that day. That's what Al said, anyway. Then he went and became a priest.

Even with Al out of contention, we still didn't get any dates.

Lack of women sent me to power generation lab. In the lab they have a big machine called, the synchronous machine. It's basically a rotating shaft with a bunch of wire coils around it. Some of these coils turn with the shaft, some don't. The ones that don't are called stators, and the ones that do are called something else. There are commutators in there to get electricity in and out. Etc. You know what you need to know. Multiply by the square root of two. Things spin. Meters deflect. You make graphs. They give you a degree. You go to work in nuclear power plants.

Of course, that might not happen. Let's say you connect the synchronous machine to three-phase 440V 60AMP, 60Hz power. This may not sound like much to you, but you could run a big ride at Disney World on that alone.

So let's say you put that juice in one synchronous machine thing and get it spinning. Then you connect the synchronous machine to a diesel engine, just because you're a boy and you can. Then you crank up the engine so it's really torquing the synchronous machine. You can actually help the electric company supply the world. Your electric meter runs backward and you suspect you've just discovered a great way for the university to save money through the totally inefficient, indirect generation of power through diesel generators.

I was admiring the backward running electric meter, holding two wires in my hand. These two wires represented one of the three phases of the 440V, 60A supply we were dealing with. I was waiting to plug these wires into an important socket when June Eccleston came into the lab.

June was one of the few female engineers in our class and having her in the lab outside class with so few guys around gave me odds I could never have otherwise. My mating genes engaged. I was ready to show all my feathers.

What I did to convince her I was worthy of breeding was that while trying to get up the guts to ask her to the Devo concert I casually touched my thumbs to the bare ends of the wires, forming a circuit that went from Jersey Central Power and Light's plant in Livingston to my left thumb to hand to arm to body to heart to arm to hand to right thumb and back into the universe of electrons generated by the power plant.

In this case, the square root of three is involved when calculating the total charge I conducted. And then you have to consider real versus imaginary power -- where only the real power was involved in the actual cooking of me. When I woke up my arms were frozen in a contracted position. There was smoke coming from my shirt. Something was burning, and it smelled like hamburger. It turned out to be coming from the machine. We ground up some sort of vole in there.

My lab partner was sure he saw an angel of God tearing one of the leads out of my convulsing hand. Either that or it was the wire melting. He ran off to become a priest. He was out of the running for the women, but it didn't make much difference.

Instead of having me expelled, professor Rankin gave me an 'A' for that class because I was making adequate use of the square-root-of-two key on my calculator. My arms returned to normal after a couple of hours.

June didn't seem to care. Later I would learn that probability of survival is something a woman looks for in a mate, and nearly frying yourself alive in front of one was unlikely to help win her heart.

The aplomb with which I absorbed electrons or survived their catastrophic propulsion earned me some noteriety. (Actually the US Army suggested I might be a good candidate for their pulse-power conditioning lab where they generate titanic electrical pulses to run huge lasers to blast missiles out of the sky, but I never did that.) I kept my concentration in physics where except for the poison gas, the small, non-lethal voltages would keep me out of trouble.

When you get a graduate degree in electrical engineering, the first thing people say to you is: "Hey, when are you going to come by and fix my TV?" After a while you get tired of telling them engineering is not TV repair. You get tired of hearing them say, "So what good are you?" You start thinking the matchbook course on TV and VCR repair would have made you more popular than working for a big electronics company that does things nobody understands.

People understand when their TV works and when it doesn't. The fact you helped put satellites in orbit or put megahertz in someone's computer pales in comparison with bringing Jerry Springer into people's homes.

So when my mother-in-law's TV broke, why couldn't college-educated me fix it? I did know something about complicated TV electronics, didn't I? After all, physics is one thing, but TVs are God's work. And by the way, Bobby Sweeney from across the street fixed his mother's TV when it broke, and he was an accountant.

If you kill yourself by sticking your wet finger on the flyback transformer of an active television set, your life insurance agent laughs at your widow and child and sends them away penniless. So every moderately educated person knows not to do that. Everyone who has ever opened the back of a computer monitor or television set knows how to discharge the great big capacitor that stores enough electrons to burn your aorta to a chip. Everybody knows how to take the screwdriver and short the terminals to the case to prevent the laughing during the eulogy.

I had determined the thermally-actuated crowbar circuit in the Sony's power supply was kicking in prematurely and shutting down the TV. I was smart enough to figure that out. I was smart enough to figure out which transistor was causing the problem.

Because there isn't enough college education available to humanity to help a deeply and fundamentally stupid, suicidal person, I decided to do some testing with the TV turned on, to make sure my fix was going to take. I defeated the safety interlock that prevented one from switching the set on with the case opened. The yellow sticker that said, "No user serviceable parts inside" was a taunt. The little international symbol man being zapped from the sky by God only meant "sinners need not pass these sacred electronic gates". For I was a holy man of lightning.

Didn't they know who I was? Did they expect I could be demeaned by being catalogued a "user"? They, who invented stickers, had never met me. I vowed the "they" who did these things would be sorry someday.

It was hot. My home's tiny airconditioner wasn't cooling down our living room, where I had my in-law's TV in pieces on the coffee table. My shirt was off and I was covered in sweat.

I was holding a high-voltage probe from a fluke multimeter against a terminal of the thirty-thousand volt power supply when something made me move. I think I was reaching for a sip of coca-cola. Or maybe I was raising my hands to prayer, or maybe I just wanted to scratch my tongue, because the truth is that those brain cells have been char-broiled and are now rattling around in my skull like dried mexican beans.

I woke up sitting upright, wobbling from side to side. The lights in the house were flickering. There was a streak of red across my chest and a thin trail of smoke where the hair had been singed off. The electricity had gone from one wet finger across my sweaty chest to the other, burning a track as it went.

When my wife came into the living room and saw me burning on the floor she said the only thing worth contributing to the world of knowledge and altruism when confronted with a self-destructive engineering idiot.

"Did you fix it?"

It turns out I had, and so was now on par with Bobby Sweeney, the accountant TV maintenance genius from across the street.

A few days later, I met Bob in the town bar and I asked him about fixing his mother's TV, because after all, between amateur TV repair and becoming a navy seal, it was unclear to me which was less dangerous.

He didn't remember fixing the TV. Just that the remote needed batteries.