Meet Dr. Know

Got a question? Ask our new brainiac.

Illustrations by Hawk Krall

Welcome to the inaugural edition of Dr. Know, the new Willamette Week feature that allows you, the stalwart reader, to experience the tooth-chipping excitement of having your questions answered by an insufferable know-it-all, all without the in-person awkwardness of having said know-it-all try to con you into letting him crash on your couch.

Sound too good to be true? Believe me, it's not. Not even close. That said, every week part of page 4 in our Inbox section will be devoted to actual answers to your real questions, containing as many authentic, honest-to-God facts as I can fit.

Here are the ground rules: First, send your questions to Second, this is a local feature, so your questions should have some connection to Portland or its immediate vicinity.

Third, as much as I'd enjoy answering speculative questions like, "Which Portland suburb most deserves to be destroyed by a rain of fire?" or "Can Chuck Palahniuk write a book so gross even he won't read it?" my editors prefer copy that has some tenuous grounding in objective reality.

Finally, bear in mind that the column, though short, isn't that short. If you send in a question with a three-word answer, like "How far is it in miles from Portland to Salem?" I'll still have 247 words in which to speculate about your ancestry and grooming habits after I'm done, so you might want to give me a little more to work with.

Within these confines, though, anything is fair game. Bring it.

I have an ostentatiously large yacht and would like to cruise up and down the Willamette with my drunk friends. How much do I, as a private citizen, have to pay to have the bridges raised and lowered? —Blair W., West Linn

I hope you (and every other poor schmuck who's ever waited in traffic while a diesel-powered sailboat made its leisurely way under a bridge) are sitting down, because the answer to your question is: not a goddamn dime.

I'll give you a moment to boggle at the injustice.

Breathing again? Good. The cynical among us could be forgiven for thinking this is another case of everything being free if you're rich enough. But Mike Pullen, spokesman for Multnomah County Bridge Operations, says that's not the case. "It's a federal maritime principle—we can't charge, legally," Pullen says. "If we did, there'd be huge fines."

This ancient maritime principle states that, since the river was there before the bridge, boats have legal priority over bridge traffic. It's sort of like the principle that says that, since you dated your high-school sweetheart before you met your wife, it's OK for you to hook up with her at the reunion. Oh, except this one is taken seriously.

The upshot is that unless it's rush hour—only emergency traffic can raise the bridges then, thank God—anyone with a big enough boat can make a quick phone call to a booth on the Hawthorne Bridge and have the whole 440-ton span hoisted into the air more or less any time they feel like it—though in fairness to the yacht-dwelling idlers of the world, it should be noted that the Hawthorne Bridge has to be raised every eight hours whether there's a boat or not, so it doesn't get stuck. No joke.

Why are so many public-art installations in Portland shaped like a phallus? —Orville B., Portland

For reasons I'm sure I can't begin to fathom, no one at Portland's Regional Arts and Culture Council, who oversee the city's public art, was dying to go on the record chewing the fat with me about dongs. "Don't drag me into this," said one source who declined to be identified. (I'll just call this person "Deep Throat.")

Assured of anonymity, Throat admitted that "Pod," the motion sculpture across from Powell's Books downtown was known to be nicknamed "The Nutsack." But the source claimed to be mystified by the contention that any other recent public art was particularly phallic. "I really don't know what [the questioner] is talking about," said Throat, but agreed to send me a list of recent "vertical outdoor sculptures" just in case.

Vertical, eh? I had a look for myself. Let's see: Stack Stalk, Eastbank Esplanade—a tower capped with a glass bulb. Araminta, Northeast 57th Avenue and Sandy Boulevard—a biomorphic glass tower. Baobab, Northeast Alberta Street—a biomorphic ceramic tower, capped with a cast resin…head.

I'd been had! Granted, if my junk looked like any of these sculptures I'd see a urologist pronto, but I definitely saw it. Irate, I contacted Deep Throat again, but it turns out the list I got only contained the five most "vertical" out of 150.

"We could probably come up with a similar list using such descriptives as 'figurative,' 'functional,' 'interactive,' 'whimsical'—but that might not pique the interest of your readers as 'phallic' has," the long-suffering source noted. "Interpretation of art, public or otherwise, is in the eye—or hormones— of the beholder."

Why should I install a water-saving low-flow toilet when the Benson Bubblers run freely all over town 18 hours a day, 365 days a year? —Kelsey M., Portland

My first impulse on hearing this question was to tell you to take a deep breath and try to find something more substantial to worry about. Unfortunately, facts intervened.

The truth is that the fountains bequeathed to the city in 1912 by Simon Benson actually do use a hell of a lot of water—156,000 gallons a day in total, according to Water Bureau estimates. That's about 57 million gallons a year. (Until flow restrictors were installed in 2005, the total was nearly twice that.)

To put this in perspective, you and 20 of your neighbors would each need to install one low-flow toilet to save the amount of water that just one of the 132 beloved fountains goes through in a year.

Moreover, you're hardly the first to turn your joykilling gaze on the Bubblers' wasteful ways. "There's a delicate balance between people who support and prioritize the historical importance of these fountains, their beauty and popularity, [and those] who think they waste water," says Water Bureau spokeswoman Jennie Day-Burget. In other words, "Lots of people like them, so back off, Elmira Gulch."

Ultimately, the most compelling reason to install that low-flow toilet is to save yourself money: After all, you're the one who's paying the water bill. It's true that in a sense you pay for the fountains, too, but even if you did manage to ban them—and every other fun, cool thing in the city—there's no guarantee taxes would go down. And in the meantime, we'd all hate you.

Is it possible skinny jeans will have lasting negative health effects? Portland already has a low birth rate. —Zeke M., Portland

I sense, between the lines of your question, a certain contempt for Portland hipsters that makes me wonder if you're sincere in your concern that they be able to reproduce freely.

That said, the answer to your question is: quite possibly. Several studies, including one from 1995 in the International Journal of Andrology, have confirmed the old saw about tight pants depressing spermatic health. (This should not be construed to mean, however, that skinny jeans constitute reliable birth control, unless you look really terrible in them.)

I also found a letter published by the Canadian Medical Association Journal, in which an Ontario doctor described treating three women with tingly thighs. It sounded like it was going to be a hell of a letter, but it turned out the women's predilection for tight, hip-hugging jeans had induced a condition called meralgia paresthetica—or, a pinched femoral nerve that causes thigh-tingling.

The doctor prescribed "four to six weeks of avoiding hiphuggers and wearing loose-fitting dresses," ideally while standing directly over a powerful air vent in the doctor's office floor.

A final risk was noted by a reproductive medicine specialist recently interviewed in the U.K. Guardian: "Bacteria thrive in the warm, moist environment created by tight trousers, nylon tights and pants. Excess moisture also affects the pH balance of the vagina, making a woman more prone to infections."

Remember, ladies: Nothing beats a cold, dry vagina.

I'm thinking of buying a house. When the big earthquake hits Portland, which neighborhood will still be standing? —Ashley T., Portland

For years, I fantasized about being on the patio at the Goose Hollow Inn when the Big One finally came, so I could watch all the expensive houses on the east slope of the West Hills slide into oblivion, perhaps while a photographer from Webster's snapped my picture for inclusion with the entry on "class resentment."

So imagine my disappointment when, during a seminar on earthquake preparedness I attended in 2007 (I'm a fun date), I learned that those houses were probably considerably safer in an earthquake than my own squalid hut on the flats.

According to Portland State University geologist Scott Burns, the West Hills form the western lip of a bedrock trough that dips below the city and resurfaces with the foothills of the Cascades. That trough is full of fertile, structurally hopeless alluvial land, which we decided to build our city on because it's nice and flat. Unfortunately, in an earthquake, the soft ground in that trough can start sloshing around like soup in a bowl, leading to damage many times more severe than might be expected from the movement of the bedrock alone. Oops.

By the way, the Juan de Fuca subduction zone, just off the Oregon coast, is perfectly capable of producing earthquakes up to around 9 on the Richter scale, which is to say as strong as any in history, ever. It does this every 300 to 800 years, most recently 300 years ago. When that one comes, it probably won't matter much where your house is.

Send your questions to Dr. Know at

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