‘Where did you go?’ ‘Out!’
“What did you do?” “Nothing.” Sound familiar? Typical teenage responses, right? Years ago I played a game with a very special teenage girl in order to get her to open up about her day. Usually I would wait until we were at the dinner table and would ask, “What was your high?” After she responded, I would ask, “What was your low?” in reference to the high and low points of her day.When we want to get our kids to open up it’s usually better to ask open ended questions. Besides, when kids feel that we’re interested in all aspects of their life instead of how well they’re adhering to parental rules, they’re more apt to reveal what’s really important to them. So it was no surprise that this special young lady would ask me questions framed in the same high-low or best-worst context. One day when I casually remarked, “That’s the best invention since sliced bread,” she somewhat facetiously commented, “If that’s the best thing, then what was the worst thing?”I guess she figured that turnabout was fair play. Besides, it made me think for a moment, and I offered my opinion about the best and worst of mankind’s inventions.The best, or perhaps I should say the most influential, invention ever has to be the process of mass producing printed material as developed by Johann Gutenberg. Printing had been used in China before Gutenberg, but the process was unwieldy. Johann Gutenberg became the first person to successfully combine the four elements of printing (movable type, the printing press itself, ink appropriate to the process and suitable paper) into an effective system for mass production. It can also be argued that printing was actually the first mass-produced product in history.While not a complete explanation, we can gain a measure of the significance Gutenberg’s process had on the world by gauging the impact that mass-produced printing had upon technological advancement in Europe. During the mid-1400s Europe and the Far East were in a state of technological equivalency. But subsequent to Gutenberg’s adaptations, which launched the greatest revolution in the history of human communications (although it could also be argued that fiber-optic cable now holds that honor), there was a significant divergence in the technological achievements of the two regions.In fact, for a period of time Europe developed far more rapidly than did the East. And while not the only factor contributing to this phenomenon, the effect mass-produced printing had upon mass communication was unlike anything the world had witnessed, making Gutenberg’s process truly revolutionary.So if printing was the best ever, what could be the worst? Excluding weaponry, that dishonor goes to a compound developed by Thomas Migley Jr., a relatively obscure inventor from Akron, Ohio. During the 1920s refrigeration was a problem in the U.S. because refrigerators used dangerous gases that more often than not had a tendency to leak. In one particular instance in 1929, over a hundred people died in a Cleveland hospital from leaking refrigerants.So it was that Thomas Migley set out to create a gas that was stable, non-corrosive and safe to breathe. What he came up with was chlorofluorocarbons, better known as CFCs. CFCs soon went into mass production and have been used in numerous applications from automobile air conditioners to refrigerators to deodorant sprays. But there are two significant problems associated with chlorofluorocarbons: Once released into the atmosphere they devour the ozone layer that protects us from the sun’s UV rays. And they tend to hang around for a while – about a century or so. That means every escaped molecule of CFC refrigerant manufactured since the 1930s remains in the air to this day and is wreaking havoc with our atmosphere.To exacerbate the issue, ozone is not very abundant in our atmosphere and if spread evenly over the globe would probably measure about one eighth of an inch thick, so its destruction is not something we can take lightly. Not only that, but one pound of CFCs can annihilate several thousand pounds of atmospheric ozone.Want more? Well, CFCs are also heat sponges, and molecule for molecule, contribute more to the greenhouse effect than carbon dioxide. How much more you ask? How about by a factor of 10,000! Yup, I think CFCs unequivocally qualify as the worst invention of the 20th century and perhaps all of history. But back to the dinner table. When you want your kids to talk, try asking a few open-ended questions. Ask them to tell you what the best part of their day was – and don’t forget to ask, “Why?” Do the same regarding their low points. You may be amazed at what they will reveal once you demonstrate real interest and begin digging beneath the surface.Butch Mazzuca, a local Realtor and ski instructor, writes a weekly column for the Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Vail, Colorado
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