Complete Columns

Come See The Best Thing Since Itself (The Bread Slicing Machine)
Taking a whack at history's most important invention (next to the cigarette umbrella).

In the pantheon of history there exists a singular crowning achievement, a kairotic moment if you will, or even if you won’t; a truly pivotal event in the unfolding saga that is this flowering enigma called mankind, so signaled by an invention exhibiting the pinnacle of American know-how, which has since proved to be the benchmark of and ultimate standard by which the greatness of all other things prior to the existence of the item in question is to be measured. Therefore, in order to justify that last amazingly protracted sentence, we’re going to spend some time learning about the bread slicing machine.

Sliced Kleen Maids and albino clown suits

[x_pullquote type=”right”] By 1930 Wonder Bread, the now-familiar baking company with the bags patterned after the suit of an albino clown, perfected the machine.[/x_pullquote]What the world was like before the invention of the bread slicing machine in 1928 we can only imagine, so we will: vast swaths of the country, flush with the promises of the burgeoning industrial revolution, ready to push forward in progress and improvement, yet shackled with the onerous task of having to slice their own bread every day. The psychological weight of the reminder that mankind was being ridiculed daily by uncut loaves of baked wheat may have been what pushed itinerant Iowa jeweler Otto Frederick Rohwedder to break the bread slicing barrier once and for all, or he may have just really wanted to make a little money. The bread slicing machine he invented was first used by the Chillicothe Baking Company in Chillicothe, Missouri in mid-1928 (Official Motto: “Wait; it’s going to be called ‘The Depression’? Well, okay.”) which was marketed their product as “Wrapped Sliced Kleen Maid Bread”, a name which for me conjures up a picture not so much of fresh, neatly cut bread but a torture movie plot featuring a domestic servant convention held in the ruins of a haunted bakery. By 1930 Wonder Bread, the now-familiar baking company with the bags patterned after the suit of an albino clown, perfected the machine and began to promote it as “the greatest forward step in the baking industry since bread was wrapped.” In the annals of baking history, if bakers keep annals, the slicing machine was a boon, assuming bakers also have boons, as they were now able to tout this new feature as the latest time saver in food, at least until someone invented that cheese you can spray directly into your mouth.

The greatest thing since…

Strangely, even more famous than this machine’s ability to mechanically segment a common baked good has been the phrase “The best thing since sliced bread.” After all, no one goes around saying “the best thing since those plastic nubbins on the end of your shoelaces that keep them from fraying“, or “the best thing since the spring-loaded pooper-scooper“, so why is the bread slicer held in such high esteem? One theory is that tired ad executives from 1968 who were working on a bakery account built a time machine in order to go back in history, plant the slogan, then return to their own time, where the phrase would now have become so popular they could claim it and knock off work for a three-cocktail lunch, but since this theory is one I just made up now it has not seen a lot of acceptance. Regardless, the phrase began to grow in popularity around the 50’s, and soon it became a catch phrase amongst mid-century Americans, who now had many things to call “great things”, such as the motorized surfboard or the cigarette umbrella. Cagey philosophers decided to get in on the action and began to posit complex metaphysical theories, such as “Is the bread sliced, or is it, through entropy, merely attempting to return to its prior temporal state of atomic disunity?”, upon which they were given a $200,000 grant to study wheat migration in Kansas. Other countries have since come up with similar phrases, with varying degrees of success. For example:

  • Germany: “The loaf! All hope of its prior mewling existence has been severed… and it is good.”
  • France: “There is nothing better than for the bread to be sliced, for it then means that the wine is not far behind.”
  • Mexico: “Give us your bread or we will slice you.”
  • China: “The People have determined things have always been perfectly good whether the bread has been sliced or not.”
  • Canada: [sound of someone hacking away at frozen bread] “I’m so hungry!”
  • North Korea: “Slicing the bread was such a great idea! I’m glad we thought of it first!”
  • Russia: “Bread? What bread?”

As for Otto, the original inventor, he commented in 1930 that “We are continuing our experimental and developmental work confident in the belief that the real possibilities of Sliced Bread have scarcely been scratched,” which leads me to believe that somewhere, maybe in a secret baking installation a mile underground somewhere in Nebraska, top-secret bread-slicing experiments involving nuclear fusion and mutant wheat are being conducted, in hopes of finally finding the answer to who actually eats those pieces on the ends of the loaf. So, hail, bread slicing machine, for your tireless machinations over the years have kept our wrists happy, our arms fit and ready to do our daily work, as we find our daily bread cut and waiting for us to burn in our toasters because we forgot about it because the coffee pot started to leak again.

Just Don’t Say Anything About the Granite Boogers (Mount Rushmore)
Our historically inept discourse on the Monument To A Bunch Of Guys With Really Big Heads.

At an elevation of some 5,725 feet nestled in the rugged Black Hills of South Dakota, chiseled into the cold granite of the mountain the native Lakota Sioux indians called “Six Grandfathers”, there lies a gift shop from which you can purchase a snow globe featuring one of America’s most impressive National Memorials, Mount Rushmore.

Not your average Danish intestinal pathosis

[x_pullquote type=”right”]The monument was authorized by Congress (Official Motto: “We Get The Thingz Dun Rites!”) on March 3, 1925.[/x_pullquote]The brainchild of South Dakota historian Doane Robinson, who wanted to promote tourism in the Black Hills using the unique marketing tactic of humongous granite heads, the monument was authorized by Congress (Official Motto: “We Get The Thingz Dun Rites!”) on March 3, 1925. The realization of such a monumental sculpture would not have been achieved without the work of Gutzon Borglom, which is not a rare Danish intestinal pathosis that gives you a unique ability to chisel mountains, but an actual guy who liked to carve rock. Borglum was persuaded by Robinson to create the monument, partially because of his experience in sculpting the Confederate Memorial Carving, but mostly because he was the only guy who promised he could chisel out a 10-foot presidential nose without once saying “I’m a booger!” and breaking down in giggling fits of junior high-ish laughter.

Captain Nemo and the League of Attorneys

The mountain itself is named after Charles E. Rushmore, a prominent businessman and attorney who we can verify had a super-fearsome 1900’s-style walrus mustache. Legend has it that Rushmore was hunting in the Black Hills with a band of his fellow attorneys when they were attacked by a herd of Super Bears, immense alien creatures said to be the offspring of Bigfoot and a rabid Redwood tree, who chased the men up a mountain, where they were able to hide in the secret cave of Captain Nemo and call the League of Attorneys to come rescue them in their flying DeLoreans on their wrist TV’s, and then they called the mountain Rushmore from then on. Being just legend, however, it may not be true, but it is at least true that the mountain is named after Rushmore, who was also the top contributor to Borglum’s sculpture, having donated $5,000 (modern value: $139.99 in Gift Shop Dollars).

Batholith magma and the laser eagles

For the monument’s location, Borglum chose Mount Rushmore, partly because it faced southeast and enjoyed maximum exposure to the sun, and partly because that’s where the gift shop was. Rushmore is composed mainly of granite, and Wikipedia also insists that “the batholith magma intruded into the pre-existing mica schist rocks during the Proterozoic, roughly 1.6 billion years ago”, although for all we know, that sentence is just a dirty joke that’s really funny only to geologists. Borglum had decided on a monument consisting of presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln in four 60-foot sculptures. 60 four-foot sculptures were briefly considered as being much easier, but Borglum realized he would have eventually run out of presidents. The original plan called for the likenesses to be made from the head down to the waist, but historians weren’t sure if George Washington’s abs were ripped enough for that type of exposure, plus funds had run out anyway. Borglum utilized new methods of constructing the sculpture such as dynamite, pneumatic hammers, and eagles with lasers, although the latter was never substantiated.

Monument To A Bunch Of Guys With Really Big Heads

The first face to be completed, Washington’s, was dedicated on July 4, 1934, but the entire project took 14 years to complete. Borglum died in March of 1941 before the monument was finished, but his son, Lincoln Borglum (no relation to the 16th president) was able to continue the work and the completed Mount Rushmore National Memorial, now dubbed the “Shrine of Democracy” because “Monument To A Bunch Of Guys With Really Big Heads” was already taken by Congress, was dedicated on October 31 of 1941. Today, over two million visitors a year make the drive in their summer vacation minivans to visit the memorial, stopping to gaze upon the majesty of the mountain, marveling at the skill it took to complete the task, reflecting on the depth and breadth of our nation’s storied history, and then buying a snow globe from the gift shop — and get me some Cheezits — we’ve got 480 miles to Yellowstone and we still need to stop and see the World’s Largest Ball of Barbed Wire in Jackson, Wyoming.

Mount Rushmore facts

  • The monument erodes only one inch for every 10,000 years and so requires little maintenance, except for the occasional cleaning of Teddy Roosevelt’s glasses by an Army Chinook helicopter lugging a giant spray bottle of Windex and a huge Kleenex.
  • Miraculously, no lives were lost during the dangerous and arduous construction of the monument, except for the four presidents, who were fortunately already dead.
  • Approximately 450,000 tons of rock was blasted off the mountainside, most of it intentionally, providing enough material to build a mountain of similar size, except in the shape of a pile of gravel.
  • Mount Rushmore celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1991 after undergoing a $40 million restoration project, which included cleaning, new contacts for Jefferson, and removing that giant mole on Lincoln’s face.
Photo Credit: WestVacation cc

Calm Your Caxirolas: It’s the World Cup!
We do our best to explain earth's quadrennial vuvuzela fixation.

Every four years there is an earth-wide contest to see who are the most obnoxious soccer fans in the universe, during which some games are also played. This is the FIFA World Cup, which, to many Americans, has all the excitement of wondering whether or not you remembered to use that $5 off coupon at your last oil change, but to the rest of the world, is like the Super Bowl and the World Series had a baby, and it descended to earth wrapped in a fiery rainbow and wearing golden shin guards, and then it kicked a black and white ball around on the grass for two hours while every human on earth went absolutely bananas. Which is to say that I don’t think there’s an analogy for the excitement the World Cup has for the rest of the world that an American would understand, but you should know a little bit about it in case your boss is from Uruguay and decides to have mandatory conference room game discussions about Fernando Muslera‘s dismal performance at the Copa América, instead of going over last month’s dismal sales results.

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Yeah, but what if the Gorn had a vuvuzela?

[x_pullquote type=”right”]If a game in America were to end in a tie, fans would just wander, zombie-like, out of their favorite sports bar, not speaking, wondering why they just spent twenty dollars on some mediocre hot wings…[/x_pullquote]The World Cup has a few rules and regulations that may seem strange to many Americans, one of which is the allowance for a tie game. As much as Americans now seem to want each of their amateur athletes to get a medal, trophy, new car and a college scholarship just for being able to not tie their cleats together, they also equally abhor anything in their professional sports that even comes close to a tie, draw or stalemate. There must be a winner, or there won’t be a good enough reason for rioting and looting after your favorite sporting team wins their respective world championship; I mean, those cars aren’t going to just overturn and burn themselves. If a game in America were to end in a tie, fans would just wander, zombie-like, out of their favorite sports bar, not speaking, wondering why they just spent twenty dollars on some mediocre hot wings when they didn’t even get the chance to celebrate their world-shattering win or gripe about their sucky team. However, if a World Cup game remains tied after 90 minutes of regulation play and 30 minutes of overtime, then each team chooses their strongest champion and they fight to the death in the center of the field using only objects they can find around them, such as diamonds, sulfur, saltpeter, or — no, wait; sorry, that was that episode in Star Trek with the Gorn. To be accurate, only games in the initial round can end in a tie; championship games obviously have to have a winner, so they do penalty kicks until someone gets a goal, or the stadium collapses under the sheer weight of unbearable suspense and vuvuzela spit.

Funyuns and Caxirolas

You’ll also get no chance for a bathroom break during the game, as there are no timeouts or commercial breaks in World Cup soccer — er, football. This concept is enough to make a corporate American ad agency’s collective head pop off and $100 bills spout out of it, as commercials are the lifeblood of American televised sports. You’ll just have to wait until halftime comes before you can get your Funyuns and Baja Blast Mountain Dew and go potty. Each World Cup also has its own mascot, logo, slogan, even musical instrument. When Brazil hosted their World Cup in 2014, they created the “caxirola” a percussion instrument that looked like an amputated avocado with hives and a handle. Although designed to be more friendly and much less noisy than a vuvuzela, the caxirola was ironically not allowed into games because, in a preliminary match between two Salvadoran teams, fans used them to pelt opposing players. Yay, sports!

So next time you’re complaining that your favorite sporting activity is too violent, or it’s fans aren’t violent enough, just remember it’s only a few short years until you can enjoy some real sporting activity at the next World Cup in Russia, where hopefully the official musical instrument will not be a sawed-off balalaika.

[feature_headline type=”left” level=”h6″ looks_like=”h6″ icon=”book”]This column is featured in the book Sports Survival Guide for Men[/feature_headline]

Blood, sweat and gears (the Tour de France)
Our fact-feeble guide on how to tell your polka dots from your peloton.

Every year a contest plays out that punishes the participants in ways only the top competitors in their field can fathom; where once friendly teammates can turn suddenly hostile from competitive self-preservation, and even the slightest mishap can prove costly. The welcome end of each day offers only a brief rest before the beginning of another, grueling stage tomorrow, with the finish line seemingly months away. But enough about the upcoming Presidential Elections; let’s talk about the Tour de France.

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No, really; what is a “peloton”?

[x_pullquote type=”right”]The Tour de France (Translation: “That Race Lance Armstrong Always Won”) is the premiere cycling event of the year…[/x_pullquote]The Tour de France (Translation: “That Race Lance Armstrong Always Won”) is the premiere cycling event of the year, commanding the rapt attention of the approximately 122 actual American cycling fans who actually watch it live at three in the morning. Held each summer in France (Official Motto: “Our Wine Can Beat Up Your Wine”), it was originally organized in 1903 by the French magazine L’Auto (translation: “Car”) as a way to boost paper sales, possibly by trying to convince riders that these new car things were a much less exhausting way to travel up the French Alps than wooden bicycles. Considered the premiere race in all of bicycledom, riders come from all over the world to see if someone can finally explain to them what a “peloton” is, and why they should be in it, and are there any dues for joining.

The Champion of Accented E’s vs. the Devil Baby

While the route of the race changes every year, each race always traverses the mountain chains of the Alps and Pyrenees before ending up at the Arc de Triomphe on the Champs-Élysées (Translation: “The Champion of Accented E’s”). Riders spend three grueling weeks battling wind, rain, and devils holding babies all the while wondering why they shouldn’t just hop a ride in their air-conditioned support car instead.

Let’s get ready to rumble

The race consists of 21 days of racing over a 23-day period, and includes one individual time-trial stage, nine flat stages, five hilly stages, two silly stages, six mountain stages, one karaoke stage and one stage where all the riders agree to just sleep all day so everyone can win. The race alternates between clockwise and counterclockwise circuits of France, leaving the unfortunate riders using digital watches completely lost. Teams of up to nine cyclists compete against each other using bats, knives, chains and — sorry; wait; that’s the rumble scene from “West Side Story”. Actually, team members do their best to support their leader by setting the pace for him, running down attacks by other teams, grabbing coffee, returning any overdue videos he forgot to return before the race, and so on. The racer with the lowest overall time for each stage gets to wear the coveted yellow jersey, so named because it has never been washed, with other colors awarded for other accomplishments, including white with red polka dots (“King of The Mountain”), white (“Fastest Overall Rider”), green (“Most Lucrative Advertising Endorsements”), red (“Most Blood Spilled After Crashing Into A Fan Dressed As The Devil”), and black (“Most Needing To Do Laundry Real Soon.”)

Tour de France facts

  • The winner of the first Tour de France was Maurice Garin. He also won in 1904 but was disqualified when it was discovered he had actually been using a motorcycle the entire race.
  • The average cyclist will burn 124,000 calories over the entire the tour, equivalent to 243 McDonald’s double cheeseburgers, 619 Krispy Kreme donuts, or one slice of Peanut Butter Chocolate Cheesecake from the Cheesecake Factory.
  • Coincidentally, each rider will produce enough pedal strokes (486,000) to power the making of 243 McDonald’s double cheeseburgers.
  • The nickname of the Tour de France is “La Grande Boucle” (“The Big Belch”); a reference to the frequent stomach gymnastics that riders experience after a finishing a particularly difficult hill.
  • Each cyclist will produce enough sweat during the race to flush a toilet 39 times, which is ironic because none of them will actually be able to use a toilet during the race.
Photo Credit: nic_r cc
Photo Credit: dizid cc

Ball Boys, Four-Tuples and Frankenberry (Wimbledon)
We get to the centre of tennis' oldest living tournament.

Wimbledon is one of tennis’ four prestigious Grand Slam tournaments, and arguably the most famous, although I’ve never heard anyone actually really argue about it. The annual tennis tournament is held each year at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club (Official Motto: “I Say, Jeffries, Fetch Me My Snobbery Jacket, There’s A Good Chap”) in London. Officially named (apparently by Yoda) “The Championships, Wimbledon”, it is the oldest tennis tournament in the world, having been held in London since 1877 (Official Motto: “We’re The Year That Invented The Stapler!”). Wimbledon occurs during mid-summer, which, for you Americans in the south, is right after NASCAR starts, and for those in the north, just after the last NHL hockey fight ends with the awarding of the Stanley Cup, unless you count the after-awards fight in the locker room.

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12,244 gallons of tennis

[x_pullquote type=”right”]Wimbledon is the only major tennis tournament still played on grass, which I feel obliged to quickly point out to you excited Colorado tennis fans who were just about to buy a ticket to London does not mean “pot”.[/x_pullquote]Wimbledon is the only major tennis tournament still played on grass, which I feel obliged to quickly point out to you excited Colorado tennis fans who were just about to buy a ticket to London does not mean “pot”. The use of grass may also explain why the 128 players chosen for the tournament are “seeded”, but this is probably just an attempt to wring a really lame joke out of that last sentence. The tournament offers competition in men’s and women’s singles, men’s and women’s doubles, mixed doubles, unmixed singles, re-mixed triples, shaken and not stirred four-tuples, and the occasional duodecuple resulting from a spontaneous family brawl over on center court. The penultimate matches take place on “Centre Court”, which, for us backwards Americans, translates as “center court”. This court is only used for tennis the two weeks a year that the tournament takes place, while the rest of the year it is used for grass-themed parties, close-crop lawn-mowing demonstrations, and tiny games of football. The initial capacity of Centre Court in the 1880’s is not known, but historians speculate it was about 12,244 gallons. Today, the famous court has a capacity of 15,000 people, along with video scoreboards, a retractable roof, and tiny, inconspicuous lasers for “motivating” lazy ball boys. The south end of the court houses the Royal Box, from which members of the Royal Family can appear to be interested in the matches while getting their photos taken. Players traditionally bow or curtsey when the Queen is present in the box, but when she is not, they pretty much ignore it.

At least there’s always Frankenberry

Ball boys and girls play a crucial part in keeping the flow of the game smooth and humorous, as they scurry after each finished ball like hunched over rodents chasing a cheeto. Ball boys were originally provided by a company called Goldings (No Longer Used Motto: “Don’t Come Bawlin’ If Your Ball Boy Isn’t Ballin’, Boy!”), who built them from spare parts left over from street orphans. Since 1969 ball boys and girls have been supplied by local schools, who use the threat of potentially getting hit by a 140 mph serve as a method of maintaining discipline. Each ball boy or girl receives between £120-£180 (approximately 2,433 tuppence or 15 half-farthings, minus comeuppance) per day, which is probably more than some of the Latvian players make all year. All players are required to wear white during the tournament, which is a drag for the players that like to eat BBQ ribs and red Kool-Aid betweens sets, but rules are rules. The most famous Wimbledon tradition involves food, with spectators traditionally enjoying bowls of strawberries and cream from their posh box seats, while cheap ticket holders have to settle for small bowls of Frankenberry with some skim milk.

So, as you watch this years’ exciting Wimbledon matches on TV, or at least two seconds of it you’ll see while surfing past it to get to a M*A*S*H rerun, remember to enjoy it as a prime example of quaint British tradition, even with the snobbery jackets.

Castle Thingys, Horsies, and Pointy Guys (Chess)
We make some moronic moves in the world's brainiest game.

Chess is a classic two-person strategy game designed to show players that they really weren’t as smart as they thought they were. Once considered the only game of choice for non-football-playing high school boys or college grad students who knew all of the lines from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” — which, come to think of it, are pretty much the same person — chess has achieved broader appeal in recent years. It is now played online, in schools, coffee houses, and even urban parks, where it is not uncommon to see groups of bespectacled squirrels quietly pondering whether to take their opponent’s rook, or just eat a nut.

Gregorian smallpox and the castle thingy

Regarded as one of the most challenging of board games, the earliest evidence of chess’s existence dates to around AD 600 (Official Motto: “Smallpox, Schmallpox; Check Out This Groovy Gregorian Chant!”). The roots of the game can be traced even further back to Eastern India, where the earliest form of the game utilized pieces that represented the four branches of the Indian military: infantry, cavalry, elephants and chariotry. Later versions of the game did away with the elephants, as the pieces weighed over 4 tons each and made play impossibly slow, but the four general forms remained, and evolved into the modern pawn, knight, bishop, and rook, or “castle thingy” pieces.

Horsey Thing to King’s Bishop Three

[x_pullquote type=”right”]The game is begun by having one of your friends convince you that it will actually be fun.[/x_pullquote]The game is begun by having one of your friends convince you that it will actually be fun, and he won’t beat you in five moves like last time, and by reminding you yet again that yes, the “horsey” can move like an “L”. The board is laid out in a grid of sixty-four equally-sized black and white squares, or, in the case of some of the more extreme politically correct versions, just one, big, vaguely tan square with all of the pieces melted together in a symbolic group hug. Play begins when you decide you’re really going to devote the next three hours of your life to this, and you move a pawn forward, only to have it snatched away by your opponent, who is already snickering because they know you’ve already lost the game with your noob opening move. The objective is to pressure your opponent’s most important piece, the board, into falling off the table when you “accidentally” bump it, thereby mercifully ending the game. Barring that, your goal is to force his king into checkmate, a condition where the king cannot move without being captured, and so has no choice but to write a check out to the opposing king, providing compensation for the deceased pawn’s families, the cleanup of dead horses and various priests, emotional damages, etc. Each piece has only specific movements that they are allowed to do; for example, the knight can only move 3 squares forward and two squares to the side, while the rook moves horizontally or vertically across the board. The queen can sashay wherever she wants, making her the most powerful piece on the board, unlike the king, who is typically so fat and lethargic he can only move one square at a time, provided he’s even awake. Thousands of books have been written on the extensive possible strategies of the opening, middle, and end of the game, most of them using the cryptic chess-piece-moving language you probably have heard used as passwords on old TV spy shows, such as “Queen to Queen’s Knight Pawn”, “Knight to King’s Bishop Three”, or, as I prefer to say it, “Horsey Beats Up Castle and Knocks Over the Pointy Guy”. This method allows for chess opponents to play each other at great distances, even over many years, making it one of the few sports where you only have to move your brain in order to play.

Chess facts

  • The number of possible ways of playing the first four moves in a game of chess is 318,979,564,000, which is also, coincidentally, the country code and telephone number for Boris Spassky.
  • According to the America’s Foundation for Chess, none of them has had a date in over ten years.
  • The longest chess game in history occurred in 1989. It ended after 269 moves when one of the players decided he wanted to live, really live his life, so he grabbed the nearest woman and kissed her.
  • There are 169,518,829,100,544,000,000,000,000,000 ways to play the first 10 moves in chess, which is equal to the number of electrons your brain needs to decide that you really aren’t good at math.
  • The first chess game in orbit was played by the crew of the Soyuz 9 on June 9, 1970. It ended in a draw when all of the pieces immediately floated into space.
  • The folding chessboard was invented by a priest who was forbidden to play chess, so he made a chessboard that, when folded together, disguised itself as a copy of Sports Illustrated.
  • In 1985, a man named Eric Knoppert played 500 games of 10-minute chess in only 68 hours. He lost every one.
  • There are over 1000 opening moves in chess, such as the “Sicilian Defense”, the “Queen’s Gambit”, and the always popular “I don’t want to play chess!” arm sweep across the board.