Catting around: Give kitty a key

Q. Family installed a cat door to allow the pet to leave and enter the house at any time. Great idea, but soon neighborhood cats were dropping in at all hours for snacks and sociability. Could the home cat learn to use a "key"? ­K. Foyle

 A. Key insight was to add an electromagnetic door latch triggered by the presence of a strong permanent magnet, such as the one then affixed to the family feline's collar. This "open sesame" system works well, says James Livingston in Driving Force: The Natural Magic of Magnets, and should continue to do so until the neighbors start putting magnets on their cats' collars.


Q. Has anyone ever broken the sound barrier without being in a vehicle of any type? ­P. Fogg

 A. The speed of sound is about 760mph at sea level, and orbiting astronauts on a spacewalk travel many thousands of miles per hour. But they get up to that speed in a vehicle, and besides, there's no sound in space!

A better candidate– amazingly already tried is skydiving from the stratosphere. On August 16, 1960, reports Air Force Magazine, space pioneer Capt. Joseph Kittinger rode a balloon gondola to 102,800 feet (19.5 miles), then jumped. Except for his pressurized suit, he would have met near instant death in the rarefied atmosphere. As he fell through thin air and temperatures near 100° F below zero, he experienced difficulty breathing and a frozen hand.

Unlike an ordinary skydiver who tops off at around 200mph due to air friction, Kittinger kept accelerating through 16,000 feet or more to speeds of 650-700 mph and probably beyond. Another factor helping him "break the barrier" is that sound travels slower in cold, thin air, so he only had to beat the local speed of sound– more like 650 mph.

So it's likely Kittinger indeed became "the first human to go supersonic in freefall"– as was claimed. Slowdown came as the atmosphere thickened below, and by 50,000 feet he was down to about 250 mph. A small drogue chute stabilized the drop to prevent rapid spinning that could have brought on blackout. Total freefall time: four minutes, 37 seconds (followed by an eight-minute main parachute descent to New Mexico's White Sands Missile Range).

Nervous at leap-off, before a gondola sign reading "Highest step in the world," Kittinger radioed to ground, "There is a hostile sky above me, void and black. Man may live in space, but he will never conquer it." But he conquered 103,000 feet of it on that day.


Q. Guys, at a row of urinals in a public restroom, do you observe etiquette and avoid, if possible, standing adjacent to other users (the checkerboard phenomenon)? Do you also keep eyes forward in a military stare and refrain from talking? ­P.-W. Herman

 A. This is the way, it seems, of modern males. Check it out: If you're at urinal A in a bank of six urinals A through F, and another guy comes up and uses B, ignoring unoccupied C, D, E, and F, you'll feel uneasy and leave as fast as you can. With a bank of three unoccupied urinals, you'll almost certainly choose A or C to allow elbow room in case another user comes up.

In one of the few formal studies bearing on this, researcher R. D. Middlemist "bugged" a public urinal using a hidden periscope-like device, then when unwitting subjects stepped up, a confederate of the experimenter entered and used an adjacent urinal. The result for most of the observed urinators was delayed onset of flow and a briefer duration, telltale signs of nervousness.

Ergo: Most of us guys prefer to relieve ourselves in peace, away from prying eyes, and restroom urinal etiquette has evolved accordingly.


Q. Could the right dreams help you lose weight, stop smoking, give up promiscuous sex? ­S. Freud

 A. Strange as it sounds, they just might. When people in a stop-smoking or stop-drinking program were asked to describe the dreams they were having, a third of them reported DAMIT dreams– "dreams of absent-minded transgression," says Robert A. Baron in Psychology.

Here the dreamers suddenly became aware they had reverted to their old bad habits without wanting to, threatening all their good efforts. Many awoke in a panic, relieved it was only a dream. And the most surprising finding: The subjects who reported having such nightmares, in effect visualizing the emotional cost of failing, were the ones most likely to wind up successfully kicking their addictions.

Send strange questions to brothers Bill and Rich at