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The Straight Dope

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I heard aphids are born pregnant. Is this true? If so, how does it work? --Lilian Wentworth, Silver Spring, Maryland

You think your life is miserable, cucumber, just be glad you're not an aphid. Not only are they born pregnant, they're pregnant without benefit of sex. Not that sex with an aphid sounds like much of a treat. Two things are at work here: parthenogenesis and paedogenesis. Parthenogenesis, also known as virgin birth, is rare in humans (one known case) but common in insects. The baby bugs, all of which are female, develop from single cells in mom's body. The advantage of this is that reproduction is very quick--none of this flowers and perfume jive--which helps when you've got as many natural enemies as aphids have. Paedogenesis--pregnancy in the young--speeds up the process even more. "Although the young are not born until the aphid has reached the adult stage," it says here, "their development may begin before she is born while she is still in the ducts of the grandparental generation." Aphids can give birth ten days after having been born themselves. The baby showers must be murder.

Why did Mr. Phillips invent a new type of head for screws? Was he bored? Do Phillips-head screws have any advantage over the standard slot-type screw? Or was Phillips just trying to invent a market he could corner? --Roger Wilson, Mount Pleasant, South Carolina

So many opportunities for rude puns, Roger. I must be strong. Actually, Phillips screws have many advantages, most of which I am personally acquainted with, having once had a job repairing power tools. (Cecil has had quite the varied career.) Unfortunately, none of these advantages is of much use to Joe Handyman, who typically regards Phillips screws as a first-class pain in the butt, owing to their propensity to strip out at the least provocation. But more on this directly.

To engage the cross-shaped indentation in the head of a Phillips screw you need a Phillips screwdriver (you probably guessed this), whose pointed tip makes it self-centering. This is helpful when you're using a power screwdriver, which is the reason the Phillips screw was invented: it lends itself to assembly-line screwing, so to speak.

The inventor of the Phillips screw was Henry F. Phillips, a businessman from Portland, Oregon, who obviously had a lot of time on his hands. (I learn this, incidentally, from a delightful article on the Phillips screw that appeared last year in the Wall Street Journal.) Henry knew that power screwdrivers don't work well with ordinary slot screws because (1) you waste precious seconds trying to fit the damn screwdriver into the damn slot; (2) once you succeed, centrifugal force tends to make the bit slide off the screw and into the workbench; and even if you avoid this, (3) when the screw gets as far in as it's going to go, the power screwdriver either stalls, strips out the screw, or starts to spin around in your hand.

A Phillips screwdriver, however, has a pointed tip. Get it anywhere in the general vicinity of the screw and it engages as if by magic, and what's more, stays engaged. Furthermore, the cross-shaped indentation in the screw is so shallow that when you're done the screwdriver pops right out, before you get into trouble. Cecil found this handy fixing power tools, and back in the 1930s Henry Phillips thought the automakers would find it handy making cars. The automakers were no brighter then than they are now, but eventually even they realized the usefulness of Henry's device, and it's been with us ever since.

The only problem is, easy as they are to get in, Phillips screws can be a bitch to get back out. The screwdriver pops out too readily, stripping the screw, gouging the work, and in general transferring to Joe Handyman all the problems that were formerly the province of the assembly line. Once again, in other words, the little guy gets shafted by the dehumanizing forces of capitalism. The only solution, socialism obviously being in decline, is to buy a power screwdriver of your own. You can't beat 'em, join 'em.

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

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