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February 18, 2008
Volume 86, Number 07
p. 64

Science Friction with Bob Wolke

Heather Mull
Bob Wolke

Shortly after leaving academe to become a full-time writer, I spotted a highway sign that said "Watch For Falling Rocks." My first inclination was to speed up to decrease my cross section (collision probability). But then I realized that the danger wasn't falling rocks, but fallen rocks–rocks that were already on the road. The sign was misleading.

Who writes this stuff, I wondered? Was there perhaps a job for a writer who knows more about word roots than highway routes?

My literary agent was able to get me a contract with the Federal Highway Administration, and I was soon writing signs that were published in hundreds of thousands of copies all over the country.

I am the author of the best-selling "Yield," which was hailed by the motoring public as a vast improvement over "Cede Right Of Way," which nobody understood. I am also the author of "Right Lane MUST Turn Right" and its analogue, "Left Lane MUST Turn Left." My bold, oversized MUST was widely acclaimed as a masterpiece of intimidation not seen since SUBSISTO! regulated chariot traffic on the Appian Way.

My sign work was eventually anthologized in the Annals of Imperative Directional Literature, from which fact you may correctly surmise that, fueled by envy of my success, the genre I pioneered had become crowded. Hack writers were turning out such uninspired trash as "Bump" and "Slow," although I do confess that I wish I had written "Soft Shoulder."

I left the Highway Administration but leveraged my traffic-sign-writing talents to become a label writer in the clothing industry.

One of my first efforts, "Dry Clean Only," achieved only modest success before going out of print with the ascendancy of polyester.

In due course, I wrote the classic "Machine Wash Warm with Like Colors. Only Nonchlorine Bleach if Needed. Tumble Dry Low. Remove Promptly. Cool Iron if Desired." My agent sold subsidiary translation rights for "Lavar a Máquina con Agua Tibia ..." in the U.S. and "Laver les Couleurs Separement ..." in Canada. At one time, I wrote "Take Garment to River and Beat with Stones," but learned to my chagrin that wherever this advice was appropriate the consumers were unlikely to be into labels.

Thinking that I might have mined out the rather limited province of clothes-label literature, I set out to seek more fertile terrain. I considered writing those little "Do Not Operate Heavy Machinery" and "Do Not Drink Alcohol While Taking This Medicine" stickers on prescription medicine bottles, but nobody ever pays attention to them.

My most prestigious commission was a federal government contract to write warnings on wine labels. I knocked off "Contains Sulfites" in no time, but I had to slog through several rewrites before coming up with "Women Should Not Drink Alcoholic Beverages During Pregnancy." My first draft, "Consumption of Alcoholic Beverages May Lead to Pregnancy," was summarily rejected.

From there, I ventured into food fiction. One of my most widely reprinted creations was "This Package Is Sold by Weight, Not by Volume. It Contains the Full Weight of Product, Although Some Settling of Contents May Have Occurred During Shipment." My conscience really bothered me, however, when they started printing it on potato chip bags, which, as you may know, are deliberately only half-filled. They are puffed up with nitrogen gas, ostensibly "To Retard Spoilage" (I wrote that one), but actually in order to occupy maximum shelf space in the supermarket.

This experience led me to think about honesty and full disclosure on the labels of packaged foods in general. Many consumers are mistrustful of chemical preservatives such as BHT, TBHQ, and EDTA, as listed among the ingredients. Are the manufacturers trying to hide something behind those cryptic initials?

Of course, the food manufacturers will have to hire a chemist to write these names.

I'm available.

Bob Wolke can be reached at sciencefriction.wolke@gmail.com.

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Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
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