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The Straight Dope

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During the recent coverage of the Super Bowl I read something about New York City officials being concerned that people watching the game on TV might all go to the bathroom during the commercials and flush the toilet at the same time, causing a catastrophic pressure drop. Was this for real? Did anything really happen? --Listener, Paul Brian show, WGN radio, Chicago

The thing you have to understand, friend, is that New York is a giant media circus, and everybody feels like they have to get into the act. The Friday afternoon before the Super Bowl, Harvey Schultz, commissioner of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, issued a "bowl warning" (get it?) urging Super Bowl viewers, particularly those who planned to drink a lot of beer, to stagger (as it were) their trips to the bathroom so as not to put too much of a strain on the city's water system. A city spokesperson cheerfully concedes that the whole thing was done tongue in cheek, and that it was specifically timed so that it would make a cute weekend story for the media.

As it turns out, there was no noticeable "super flush effect" during or after the game. The city spokesperson speculates that this may have been due to one of two things: (1) New Yorkers actually cooperated with the government for the greater good of the city--admittedly an unlikely possibility; or (2) the game was such a laugher in the second half, and there were so many commercials, that the flush effect sort of, you should pardon the expression, dribbled away.

Media stunt or not, there really have been occasions when the super flush effect did occur. The most recent, according to the city, came at the end of the much-touted last episode of M*A*S*H, which aired in 1983. People were apparently glued to their seats during the entire two-and-a-half-hour show and then all headed off to the pissoir at once. The resultant pressure drop caused a pronounced surge in the two huge tunnels that bring water into New York each day from the Catskills. Similar surges have been observed during the Academy Awards, the first moon walk, and so on.

How much of a threat these surges pose is debatable; they only last for a few minutes. But what the hell, New Yorkers always seem to get a big kick out of contemplating impending disaster, and let's face it, living in Enwye, sometimes you need all the cheap laffs you can get.

Most pianos have just two pedals--one for loud, one for soft. But sometimes you see a piano with three pedals. What does the third one do--make the music more . . . middle-ly, somehow? And why don't all pianos have one? --Greg, Chicago

Silly boy. Let's start at the beginning. The right-hand pedal is the "forte" pedal, also called the sustain or loud pedal. In ordinary piano playing, dampers plop down on the piano strings after you let up on the keys, stifling the sound and making each note sound more distinct. On occasion, however, you want a richer, more resonant sound, so you depress the forte pedal. This prevents the dampers from falling, and any subsequent notes continue to resound until you release the pedal. The left-hand pedal is called the "una corda" or soft pedal. Most notes in a piano are produced by two or three parallel strings tuned in unison. The una corda pedal shifts the piano's innards over so that the hammers only strike two strings rather than three (or one rather than two), reducing the volume. (In many upright pianos, the una corda is replaced by the "piano" pedal, which shortens the distance traveled by the hammers, another way of reducing volume.) The mysterious third or middle pedal is usually the "sostenuto." When you press down a key, or keys, then depress the sostenuto pedal, it will sustain just that note after you release the key, allowing you to play a note in the bass, for instance, and then move both hands up to the treble for a few bars while the bass note continues to sound. In effect you have an extra hand to work with. But it's the sort of thing you only need with keyboard-spanning music like that of Debussy or Ravel. For the average "Chopsticks" tinkler, two pedals will do just fine.

Piano making being an idiosyncratic business, there are many variations on the preceding. Sometimes there's a modified sostenuto that only works for the bass notes. Sometimes it's replaced by an alternative soft pedal called the "celeste." And sometimes . . . but hey, let's quit while we're ahead.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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