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A Mobile Dirt-Finding Device That Leaves Everything Else in the Dust

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Phobias R Us: Maybe Howard Hughes wasn’t such a nut case after all. As you may recall, the billionaire recluse was so fearful of germs that he never went to the bathroom (he hired other people to go for him) and in 1971 he had his right arm replaced with a disposable mannequin limb so it could be thrown away immediately after shaking hands with anyone.

Or something like that. The point is, he went to extreme lengths to avoid germs. And maybe he was right. At least, that’s our opinion after a visit from the Swiffer Mobile, a traveling “dust investigation station” being used to publicize a new cleaning product.

Operated by Alex Basich, whose previous job was driving a giant Mr. Peanut-shaped hot rod for the Planters company, and Nikki Waller, who just graduated from Northwestern University with a degree in fiction writing, the Swiffer van is combing the countryside in search of America’s oldest dust particle and filthiest city.

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So far, Phoenix claims the most ancient piece of grime, a 5,000-year-old dust mite that scientists believe might predate Strom Thurmond. And Los Angeles scores high on the filth index. According to the Swiffer crew, Southern Californians need to dust once every two or three days, whereas Atlanta residents can go a full week without dusting, apparently because Georgia has lower humidity, less smog and less mobile soil.

But that isn’t what made us change our mind about Howard Hughes. Our germ phobia blossomed after the Swiffer team started poking around The Times with a magnifying scope connected to a TV. When the device probed the carpet, for example, we saw giant rug fibers, boulder-sized chunks of dirt and a mysterious, oozing life form that looked like either the Blob or the stuff that gushed up Linda Blair’s esophagus in “The Exorcist.”

Soon, a crowd of horrified onlookers gathered near the TV. By the time the scope swept over the inside of the office microwave oven, people were calling 911. And, as we write, the United Nations is sending troops to battle whatever it is that’s growing in the microwave.

Meanwhile, we’re stocking up on Swiffers, the new product being hyped as a remedy for all this. Swiffers are small, disposable cloths that contain 13 miles of microfibers and use “electrostatic action” to pick up dust, crumbs and animal dander from nearly any surface. Apparently dust carries a small electrical charge, so anything with the opposite charge attracts it like a magnet. It’s not a novel concept (a product called the Static Duster works on the same principle--and can be reused), but the results are impressive.

Space Cannibalism Bureau: In a bizarre merger of health food fads and space exploration, Russia plans to market a yogurt containing bacteria cultures taken from the saliva and guts of cosmonauts, according to New Scientist magazine and Reuters.

Howard Hughes is no doubt spinning in his hermetically sealed, sterilized grave.

Off-Kilter Altruism Bureau: If someone worth $225,000 sat on a couch and lost 47 cents down the cushions, it would be like Bill Gates losing $2 million, according to Wired magazine, and did we mention that any time Mr. Gates needs a place to crash while visiting Los Angeles, our couch is available?

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Best Supermarket Tabloid Headline: “Pigs Will Talk Like People Within 1 1/2 Years!” (Weekly World News)

Unpaid Informants: Rachel Williams, San Francisco Chronicle. Off-Kilter’s e-mail address is roy.rivenburg@latimes.com. Off-Kilter runs Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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