From the archives…

Quiet Parties

Silent night out on the town

On our way home from the theater after seeing the most recent X-Men movie, Morgen and I kept finding ourselves surrounded by unusually noisy people—in the lobby, on the street corner, in the subway station. We were attempting to discuss the film, but we could barely hear each other. Every time this happened, I tried to move away to a quieter spot; noise has its place, but when I’m trying to think or carry on a conversation, I prefer relative silence. As we reviewed some of the fictional mutants and their super powers, I said, “If I were a mutant, they’d call me Silento. My super power would be the ability to create a large bubble of silence all around me.” In my book, that beats being able to throw balls of flame or have metal claws pop out of my hands.

I have always been baffled at the fact that people so frequently go to noisy parties, bars, clubs, and restaurants with the apparent intention of getting to know each other or spend quality time together. How is that supposed to work? How can you have a worthwhile conversation with someone when you must yell over loud music, not to mention all those other people yelling their own conversations at each other? Perhaps my telepathic powers are insufficiently developed, but as an ordinary human, it seems more sensible to me that if you want to talk to someone, you’d go to a place where you can hear and be heard. So I was delighted to learn of a relatively recent phenomenon sweeping the world: quiet parties, where the only rule is “no talking.” [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Highgate Cemetery

Toto, I don’t think we’re in London anymore

Guest Article by Jillian Hardee

London has hundreds of popular tourist spots that attract millions of visitors each year. I admit, I did the whole Big Ben to Westminster Abbey to Buckingham Palace to Tower of London circuit and I enjoyed it. I loved being able to walk out of the hotel and onto a street that contained a 500-year-old house right down the block from a modern tube station and an Indian curry restaurant. But the intricacies of this city, like any city, are often found off the beaten path.

Both my visits to London have included a hike up Highgate Hill and then a walk down the small, winding lane leading to Highgate Cemetery. Many are familiar with London’s abbeys and churchyards, but the real appeal of dead London is Highgate, often referred to as a Victorian Valhalla. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Beale Ciphers

Yet another story of secret codes and hidden treasure

Leaving aside religious symbology and questions of historical accuracy, The Da Vinci Code is just the latest in a long line of stories that follow roughly the same plot: someone discovers a series of mysterious clues (often with a code or a map thrown in) that supposedly lead to an absurdly valuable treasure. The hero undertakes a perilous adventure, outwitting villains who want to steal the treasure (as well as, perhaps, guardians who want to protect it), and eventually succeeds—only to discover that the treasure was not quite as it had been imagined after all. From Raiders of the Lost Ark to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to National Treasure, I’ve seen variations on this basic outline countless times. Few subjects ignite the imagination of the book-buying and filmgoing public as reliably as that of hidden treasure.

In the real world, stories of codes leading to buried treasure rarely have tidy endings—and indeed, even separating fact from fiction can be nearly impossible. Such is the case with one of the most intriguing cryptographic puzzles in modern history: a series of encrypted messages dating from the 19th century known as the Beale ciphers. These messages might lead to a hidden stash of gold, silver, and jewels worth tens of millions of dollars, they might be genuine directions to a treasure that no longer exists, they might be a hoax or a joke, or, intriguingly, they might be a misunderstood charity fundraising gimmick. But whether or not the codes lead to treasure, what captivates and infuriates cryptographers is that despite more than a century’s worth of effort by the best minds and machines, the most important parts of the messages remain stubbornly opaque. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Saffron

The ultimate culinary delicacy

As I’ve mentioned a few times, I’m a bit of a French food snob. Before Morgen and I went to France the first time, we did our homework—reading up on lots of French dishes, particularly regional specialties. The list of things we had to try included authentic bouillabaisse, an elaborate fish stew seasoned with saffron. Unfortunately, what constitutes “authentic” is a matter of strenuous debate among French chefs; there are many, many different recipes. But since the dish was invented in Marseille, a large Mediterranean port city, we decided we’d define “authentic” as “whatever they served us in Marseille.”

Based on what I’d read, I didn’t have much interest in Marseille apart from its food, and our schedule was tight. Our itinerary called for us to take an overnight train there from Paris and then pick up a rental car so that we could tool around Provence for a while. We’d have, at most, a few hours in the city, during which time we had just one task to accomplish. Our plan was to get in, get some bouillabaisse, and get out. After we got our car, we drove to the old part of the city where we’d heard we could find some great restaurants. Since it was still before lunchtime and they weren’t open yet, we walked around for about an hour, studying menus and building up an appetite. In the end, we couldn’t figure out which restaurant was the most authentic-looking, so we picked one at random. The waitress offered us menus, but we didn’t need them—we were on a mission. We dutifully ordered bouillabaisse for two, which turned out to be about five times as much as we could eat. But it was unbelievably good—a truly profound experience that made our visit to the city more than worthwhile. Ever since then, the smell of saffron has taken me back to that restaurant in Marseille. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Coelacanth

Re-historic fish

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Euskara

The extraordinary Basque language

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Emperor Norton

Monarch of San Francisco

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Coin Tossing

Putting a new spin on randomness

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Breathing Liquid

The frontiers of human respiration

It’s funny the way random little factoids stick in my head, even after many years. When I was in eighth grade, I did a report for my science class on Pascal’s Law, a description of the way fluids behave in a closed system (and the basis of all hydraulics, among other things). And in the course of researching that project I came across a tiny piece of information that blew my 13-year-old mind: the word fluid is not a synonym of liquid; a fluid can be a liquid or a gas. Really? I’ve been breathing a fluid all my life? I just couldn’t get over it. Neither could my friends—I thought my endless recitations of trivia made me look smarter, but they found it annoying.

Years later, I read a Star Trek novel in which the crew of the Enterprise encountered a race of humanoid beings who breathed a liquid; the book went to great lengths to describe what that experience was like for one of the humans who had to interact with them. Although this fictional liquid was compatible with human lungs, the psychological shock of breathing a liquid was pretty intense. Later still, the very same concept showed up in the 1989 film The Abyss. But hey, that’s all just science fiction, right? Amazingly enough, humans can indeed breathe certain very special liquids. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Bee Venom Therapy

A stinging endorsement

My experience may be exceptional, but I’ve found the several bee stings I’ve received over the years to be rather unpleasant—even after remembering my favorite things, I still felt pretty bad. So when a reader wrote to tell me about a treatment for such conditions as arthritis and multiple sclerosis (MS) that involves voluntarily stinging oneself with bees, I must admit I found the whole idea rather creepy and off-putting. Although this alternative therapy has not yet proven itself in widespread clinical trials, quite a few people swear by it, insisting that the benefits far outweigh the pain. And even some doctors are trying it with their patients. I feel obliged to insert the usual “don’t try this at home” and “your mileage may vary” disclaimers, but though the jury is officially still out, an increasing body of evidence suggests that there just may be something to this weird notion after all.

A Little Jab’ll Do Ya
Numerous poisons can—in small enough quantities and under the right conditions—produce beneficial effects. So it’s entirely plausible that the same is true of bee venom, or at least some of its components, even though its main purpose is to protect the bees by inflicting pain. Bee venom therapy is a subset of apitherapy, the medicinal use of any substances created by honeybees—including royal jelly and honey, each of which is already known to have some health benefits. Researchers have discovered a number of very interesting substances in bee venom—most prominently, melittin, a powerful anti-inflammatory agent. This gives some credence to the anecdotal reports that beekeepers who were stung repeatedly experienced a reduction in the pain and swelling of arthritis. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Tree Tumbo

Mystery plant of the desert

A couple of years ago, I began noticing that our home could use some brightening up, and I thought it might be a good idea to buy a few houseplants. But I’ve never done well with plants. I even managed to kill off several cacti, despite my best efforts. So I walked into a local plant store and asked what they had that could survive under my care. The owner assured me that African violets would be a safe choice. I said, “But no, really…flowers hate me. In fact, most plants run and hide when they see me coming.” But after listening to detailed instructions, I finally agreed that I could probably care for just this one small potted plant successfully. I found one with flowers just the right shade and took it home. Well, the good news is that the plant is still alive. The bad news is that its condition gives all new meaning to the expression “persistent vegetative state,” if you know what I mean. It hasn’t flowered in eons, some of its droopy leaves are a sickly shade of yellow, and it’s clearly hanging on simply to emphasize its ongoing contempt for me. My most sincere intentions notwithstanding, I just can’t seem to keep plants healthy.

When I saw pictures of a plant called Welwitschia mirabilis (also known by such names as “tree tumbo” or “onion of the desert”) it looked very much like it could have been a previously beautiful specimen that had the misfortune of spending a season or two in my yard. In other words, it looked pretty sick and ugly. But appearances, in this case, are deceiving. This incredibly odd and unattractive plant can thrive in extraordinarily inhospitable conditions—and that’s just the start. The tree tumbo is without a doubt one of the world’s oddest plants. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Optical Painters' Aids

A matter of perspective

Although I like to think of myself as a multitalented “Renaissance man” of sorts, I must admit that when it comes to drawing and painting, I have absolutely no ability. I’m truly pitiful at Pictionary, and I couldn’t paint my way out of a paper bag. Or so I’ve always thought. Based on what I’ve been reading lately, I could probably produce some fantastic art from the inside of a very large paper bag, as long as it had a pinhole on one side and pretty bright light outside. All I’d have to do is trace the image projected by this primitive camera obscura. According to a controversial theory, this technique—or something very much like it—gave some world-renowned artists a little help as far back as 1420. Then again…maybe not. Getting to the bottom of this puzzle has been the consuming passion of quite a few artists, historians, and optical engineers over the past several years.

Without a Trace
Tracing over a projected image is a straightforward notion, but if you’ve ever tried it (as I have) you probably discovered that getting good results is not as easy as it sounds. The easy part is getting the proportions right. But lots of things in any image lack well-defined borders, and trying to make sense of textures and the effects of light and shadow while tracing something is quite a complex undertaking. If, instead of tracing, I were painting, the challenge would become even greater, as I’d have to carefully match gradations in color—and as soon as I applied a dark paint to the light surface, the image in that area would virtually disappear. All that to say: projection or no projection, producing a convincingly realistic drawing or painting takes a lot of skill and practice. So if it turned out that one of the great masters from centuries ago really did pull this off, I’d be no less impressed by the final product—and more impressed by the artist’s cleverness. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Milgram Obedience Experiments

Just following orders

As a teenager, I never thought of myself as someone who had a problem with authority. I may not have liked what I was being told to do, and I may have complained, but it was not in my nature to say no. I had my first crisis of authority when I was 16. I was learning to drive, and I’d already failed my driving test—twice. (The first time, I couldn’t parallel park and I ran into a cone; the second time, I didn’t come to a complete stop at a stop sign.) After several more weeks of practicing and diligently studying the driver’s manual, I was taking my third and final test. If I failed that, I’d have to apply for a learner’s permit all over again and endure embarrassing months of being the only person my age without a license. So the pressure was on. With the examiner, a police officer, in the passenger’s seat and sweat on my brow, I carefully completed the entire course—and I thought I did well.

At the very end, the officer told me to pull over at a certain spot and park the car. And I had a moment of complete panic: the spot he’d indicated was just a few feet from a stop sign, and I remembered from the driver’s manual that it was illegal to park so close. Was this one last test? If I obeyed, I thought, I could be failed for breaking the law. So I hesitated and said, “Isn’t that too close to the stop sign?” The officer became furious and started berating me for my arrogance, reminding me that the manual said, “…unless directed otherwise by a uniformed officer of the law.” Tugging at his sleeve, he ranted, “What does this look like, my pajamas?” He went on and on until I was about ready to shrivel up and die, but in the end, he passed me anyway. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

InterPlay

Getting grown-ups back into their bodies

There’s an old joke that I’ve heard attributed, in one form or another, to numerous religious groups. It goes: “Why do Baptists (or Methodists, or Mennonites, or Jews, or whatever) prohibit premarital sex? Because it could lead to dancing.” The implication, obviously, is that the group’s taboo against dancing is so strong that it overshadows the moral principle that gave rise to it in the first place; dancing becomes not just a potential path to evil but an evil in and of itself. One of the theological views that sometimes motivates this position is that the body (or “flesh”) is inherently sinful or corrupt, and must be ruthlessly subjugated to the purer values of the spirit. This was certainly the view of the religious tradition in which I grew up. Any activity that even suggested carnal pleasure outside strictly delimited boundaries was an immoral concession to humanity’s fallen nature.

Although this sort of thinking may be an extreme example, it’s indicative of a broader and older cultural trend, which some people refer to as the “mind-body split.” Whether you trace this trend back to Cartesian dualism, the early days of Christianity, or some other source, it amounts to a belief that the body is somehow an ontologically separate entity from the mind (or “soul,” or “spirit”). Perhaps the two are even in competition or conflict with each other. Even if, as adults, we recognize that by implicitly accepting this split we’ve become disintegrated and unbalanced, it’s difficult to reprogram ourselves to recover that sense of being a single, unified whole. A practice called InterPlay exists to encourage that process by helping people to rediscover and express one of their most basic, primal needs: play. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Parkour

Turning a city into an obstacle course

When I began studying t’ai chi almost 10 years ago, one of my reasons for doing so was a desire to learn how to move more gracefully and meaningfully. I thought (correctly, as it turned out) that t’ai chi would be a safe, interesting, and enjoyable way to learn what it feels like to move intentionally and become more aware of my posture, balance, and physical interactions with my environment.

When I first read about a sport (or art or activity) called parkour, the philosophy behind it sounded very similar: an emphasis on fluid, elegant, graceful motions. But in practice, parkour is about as different from t’ai chi as I can imagine. It’s sometimes considered an “extreme” sport; as its participants dash around a city, they may vault over fences, run up walls, and even jump from rooftop to rooftop. So you won’t see senior citizens doing it in the park on Sunday mornings, but if you do witness it, you may think you’re watching a stunt person on a movie set. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Quiet Parties

Silent night out on the town

On our way home from the theater after seeing the most recent X-Men movie, Morgen and I kept finding ourselves surrounded by unusually noisy people—in the lobby, on the street corner, in the subway station. We were attempting to discuss the film, but we could barely hear each other. Every time this happened, I tried to move away to a quieter spot; noise has its place, but when I’m trying to think or carry on a conversation, I prefer relative silence. As we reviewed some of the fictional mutants and their super powers, I said, “If I were a mutant, they’d call me Silento. My super power would be the ability to create a large bubble of silence all around me.” In my book, that beats being able to throw balls of flame or have metal claws pop out of my hands.

I have always been baffled at the fact that people so frequently go to noisy parties, bars, clubs, and restaurants with the apparent intention of getting to know each other or spend quality time together. How is that supposed to work? How can you have a worthwhile conversation with someone when you must yell over loud music, not to mention all those other people yelling their own conversations at each other? Perhaps my telepathic powers are insufficiently developed, but as an ordinary human, it seems more sensible to me that if you want to talk to someone, you’d go to a place where you can hear and be heard. So I was delighted to learn of a relatively recent phenomenon sweeping the world: quiet parties, where the only rule is “no talking.” [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Highgate Cemetery

Toto, I don’t think we’re in London anymore

Guest Article by Jillian Hardee

London has hundreds of popular tourist spots that attract millions of visitors each year. I admit, I did the whole Big Ben to Westminster Abbey to Buckingham Palace to Tower of London circuit and I enjoyed it. I loved being able to walk out of the hotel and onto a street that contained a 500-year-old house right down the block from a modern tube station and an Indian curry restaurant. But the intricacies of this city, like any city, are often found off the beaten path.

Both my visits to London have included a hike up Highgate Hill and then a walk down the small, winding lane leading to Highgate Cemetery. Many are familiar with London’s abbeys and churchyards, but the real appeal of dead London is Highgate, often referred to as a Victorian Valhalla. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Beale Ciphers

Yet another story of secret codes and hidden treasure

Leaving aside religious symbology and questions of historical accuracy, The Da Vinci Code is just the latest in a long line of stories that follow roughly the same plot: someone discovers a series of mysterious clues (often with a code or a map thrown in) that supposedly lead to an absurdly valuable treasure. The hero undertakes a perilous adventure, outwitting villains who want to steal the treasure (as well as, perhaps, guardians who want to protect it), and eventually succeeds—only to discover that the treasure was not quite as it had been imagined after all. From Raiders of the Lost Ark to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to National Treasure, I’ve seen variations on this basic outline countless times. Few subjects ignite the imagination of the book-buying and filmgoing public as reliably as that of hidden treasure.

In the real world, stories of codes leading to buried treasure rarely have tidy endings—and indeed, even separating fact from fiction can be nearly impossible. Such is the case with one of the most intriguing cryptographic puzzles in modern history: a series of encrypted messages dating from the 19th century known as the Beale ciphers. These messages might lead to a hidden stash of gold, silver, and jewels worth tens of millions of dollars, they might be genuine directions to a treasure that no longer exists, they might be a hoax or a joke, or, intriguingly, they might be a misunderstood charity fundraising gimmick. But whether or not the codes lead to treasure, what captivates and infuriates cryptographers is that despite more than a century’s worth of effort by the best minds and machines, the most important parts of the messages remain stubbornly opaque. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Saffron

The ultimate culinary delicacy

As I’ve mentioned a few times, I’m a bit of a French food snob. Before Morgen and I went to France the first time, we did our homework—reading up on lots of French dishes, particularly regional specialties. The list of things we had to try included authentic bouillabaisse, an elaborate fish stew seasoned with saffron. Unfortunately, what constitutes “authentic” is a matter of strenuous debate among French chefs; there are many, many different recipes. But since the dish was invented in Marseille, a large Mediterranean port city, we decided we’d define “authentic” as “whatever they served us in Marseille.”

Based on what I’d read, I didn’t have much interest in Marseille apart from its food, and our schedule was tight. Our itinerary called for us to take an overnight train there from Paris and then pick up a rental car so that we could tool around Provence for a while. We’d have, at most, a few hours in the city, during which time we had just one task to accomplish. Our plan was to get in, get some bouillabaisse, and get out. After we got our car, we drove to the old part of the city where we’d heard we could find some great restaurants. Since it was still before lunchtime and they weren’t open yet, we walked around for about an hour, studying menus and building up an appetite. In the end, we couldn’t figure out which restaurant was the most authentic-looking, so we picked one at random. The waitress offered us menus, but we didn’t need them—we were on a mission. We dutifully ordered bouillabaisse for two, which turned out to be about five times as much as we could eat. But it was unbelievably good—a truly profound experience that made our visit to the city more than worthwhile. Ever since then, the smell of saffron has taken me back to that restaurant in Marseille. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Coelacanth

Re-historic fish

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Euskara

The extraordinary Basque language

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Emperor Norton

Monarch of San Francisco

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Coin Tossing

Putting a new spin on randomness

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Breathing Liquid

The frontiers of human respiration

It’s funny the way random little factoids stick in my head, even after many years. When I was in eighth grade, I did a report for my science class on Pascal’s Law, a description of the way fluids behave in a closed system (and the basis of all hydraulics, among other things). And in the course of researching that project I came across a tiny piece of information that blew my 13-year-old mind: the word fluid is not a synonym of liquid; a fluid can be a liquid or a gas. Really? I’ve been breathing a fluid all my life? I just couldn’t get over it. Neither could my friends—I thought my endless recitations of trivia made me look smarter, but they found it annoying.

Years later, I read a Star Trek novel in which the crew of the Enterprise encountered a race of humanoid beings who breathed a liquid; the book went to great lengths to describe what that experience was like for one of the humans who had to interact with them. Although this fictional liquid was compatible with human lungs, the psychological shock of breathing a liquid was pretty intense. Later still, the very same concept showed up in the 1989 film The Abyss. But hey, that’s all just science fiction, right? Amazingly enough, humans can indeed breathe certain very special liquids. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Bee Venom Therapy

A stinging endorsement

My experience may be exceptional, but I’ve found the several bee stings I’ve received over the years to be rather unpleasant—even after remembering my favorite things, I still felt pretty bad. So when a reader wrote to tell me about a treatment for such conditions as arthritis and multiple sclerosis (MS) that involves voluntarily stinging oneself with bees, I must admit I found the whole idea rather creepy and off-putting. Although this alternative therapy has not yet proven itself in widespread clinical trials, quite a few people swear by it, insisting that the benefits far outweigh the pain. And even some doctors are trying it with their patients. I feel obliged to insert the usual “don’t try this at home” and “your mileage may vary” disclaimers, but though the jury is officially still out, an increasing body of evidence suggests that there just may be something to this weird notion after all.

A Little Jab’ll Do Ya
Numerous poisons can—in small enough quantities and under the right conditions—produce beneficial effects. So it’s entirely plausible that the same is true of bee venom, or at least some of its components, even though its main purpose is to protect the bees by inflicting pain. Bee venom therapy is a subset of apitherapy, the medicinal use of any substances created by honeybees—including royal jelly and honey, each of which is already known to have some health benefits. Researchers have discovered a number of very interesting substances in bee venom—most prominently, melittin, a powerful anti-inflammatory agent. This gives some credence to the anecdotal reports that beekeepers who were stung repeatedly experienced a reduction in the pain and swelling of arthritis. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Tree Tumbo

Mystery plant of the desert

A couple of years ago, I began noticing that our home could use some brightening up, and I thought it might be a good idea to buy a few houseplants. But I’ve never done well with plants. I even managed to kill off several cacti, despite my best efforts. So I walked into a local plant store and asked what they had that could survive under my care. The owner assured me that African violets would be a safe choice. I said, “But no, really…flowers hate me. In fact, most plants run and hide when they see me coming.” But after listening to detailed instructions, I finally agreed that I could probably care for just this one small potted plant successfully. I found one with flowers just the right shade and took it home. Well, the good news is that the plant is still alive. The bad news is that its condition gives all new meaning to the expression “persistent vegetative state,” if you know what I mean. It hasn’t flowered in eons, some of its droopy leaves are a sickly shade of yellow, and it’s clearly hanging on simply to emphasize its ongoing contempt for me. My most sincere intentions notwithstanding, I just can’t seem to keep plants healthy.

When I saw pictures of a plant called Welwitschia mirabilis (also known by such names as “tree tumbo” or “onion of the desert”) it looked very much like it could have been a previously beautiful specimen that had the misfortune of spending a season or two in my yard. In other words, it looked pretty sick and ugly. But appearances, in this case, are deceiving. This incredibly odd and unattractive plant can thrive in extraordinarily inhospitable conditions—and that’s just the start. The tree tumbo is without a doubt one of the world’s oddest plants. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Optical Painters' Aids

A matter of perspective

Although I like to think of myself as a multitalented “Renaissance man” of sorts, I must admit that when it comes to drawing and painting, I have absolutely no ability. I’m truly pitiful at Pictionary, and I couldn’t paint my way out of a paper bag. Or so I’ve always thought. Based on what I’ve been reading lately, I could probably produce some fantastic art from the inside of a very large paper bag, as long as it had a pinhole on one side and pretty bright light outside. All I’d have to do is trace the image projected by this primitive camera obscura. According to a controversial theory, this technique—or something very much like it—gave some world-renowned artists a little help as far back as 1420. Then again…maybe not. Getting to the bottom of this puzzle has been the consuming passion of quite a few artists, historians, and optical engineers over the past several years.

Without a Trace
Tracing over a projected image is a straightforward notion, but if you’ve ever tried it (as I have) you probably discovered that getting good results is not as easy as it sounds. The easy part is getting the proportions right. But lots of things in any image lack well-defined borders, and trying to make sense of textures and the effects of light and shadow while tracing something is quite a complex undertaking. If, instead of tracing, I were painting, the challenge would become even greater, as I’d have to carefully match gradations in color—and as soon as I applied a dark paint to the light surface, the image in that area would virtually disappear. All that to say: projection or no projection, producing a convincingly realistic drawing or painting takes a lot of skill and practice. So if it turned out that one of the great masters from centuries ago really did pull this off, I’d be no less impressed by the final product—and more impressed by the artist’s cleverness. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Milgram Obedience Experiments

Just following orders

As a teenager, I never thought of myself as someone who had a problem with authority. I may not have liked what I was being told to do, and I may have complained, but it was not in my nature to say no. I had my first crisis of authority when I was 16. I was learning to drive, and I’d already failed my driving test—twice. (The first time, I couldn’t parallel park and I ran into a cone; the second time, I didn’t come to a complete stop at a stop sign.) After several more weeks of practicing and diligently studying the driver’s manual, I was taking my third and final test. If I failed that, I’d have to apply for a learner’s permit all over again and endure embarrassing months of being the only person my age without a license. So the pressure was on. With the examiner, a police officer, in the passenger’s seat and sweat on my brow, I carefully completed the entire course—and I thought I did well.

At the very end, the officer told me to pull over at a certain spot and park the car. And I had a moment of complete panic: the spot he’d indicated was just a few feet from a stop sign, and I remembered from the driver’s manual that it was illegal to park so close. Was this one last test? If I obeyed, I thought, I could be failed for breaking the law. So I hesitated and said, “Isn’t that too close to the stop sign?” The officer became furious and started berating me for my arrogance, reminding me that the manual said, “…unless directed otherwise by a uniformed officer of the law.” Tugging at his sleeve, he ranted, “What does this look like, my pajamas?” He went on and on until I was about ready to shrivel up and die, but in the end, he passed me anyway. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

InterPlay

Getting grown-ups back into their bodies

There’s an old joke that I’ve heard attributed, in one form or another, to numerous religious groups. It goes: “Why do Baptists (or Methodists, or Mennonites, or Jews, or whatever) prohibit premarital sex? Because it could lead to dancing.” The implication, obviously, is that the group’s taboo against dancing is so strong that it overshadows the moral principle that gave rise to it in the first place; dancing becomes not just a potential path to evil but an evil in and of itself. One of the theological views that sometimes motivates this position is that the body (or “flesh”) is inherently sinful or corrupt, and must be ruthlessly subjugated to the purer values of the spirit. This was certainly the view of the religious tradition in which I grew up. Any activity that even suggested carnal pleasure outside strictly delimited boundaries was an immoral concession to humanity’s fallen nature.

Although this sort of thinking may be an extreme example, it’s indicative of a broader and older cultural trend, which some people refer to as the “mind-body split.” Whether you trace this trend back to Cartesian dualism, the early days of Christianity, or some other source, it amounts to a belief that the body is somehow an ontologically separate entity from the mind (or “soul,” or “spirit”). Perhaps the two are even in competition or conflict with each other. Even if, as adults, we recognize that by implicitly accepting this split we’ve become disintegrated and unbalanced, it’s difficult to reprogram ourselves to recover that sense of being a single, unified whole. A practice called InterPlay exists to encourage that process by helping people to rediscover and express one of their most basic, primal needs: play. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Parkour

Turning a city into an obstacle course

When I began studying t’ai chi almost 10 years ago, one of my reasons for doing so was a desire to learn how to move more gracefully and meaningfully. I thought (correctly, as it turned out) that t’ai chi would be a safe, interesting, and enjoyable way to learn what it feels like to move intentionally and become more aware of my posture, balance, and physical interactions with my environment.

When I first read about a sport (or art or activity) called parkour, the philosophy behind it sounded very similar: an emphasis on fluid, elegant, graceful motions. But in practice, parkour is about as different from t’ai chi as I can imagine. It’s sometimes considered an “extreme” sport; as its participants dash around a city, they may vault over fences, run up walls, and even jump from rooftop to rooftop. So you won’t see senior citizens doing it in the park on Sunday mornings, but if you do witness it, you may think you’re watching a stunt person on a movie set. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Quiet Parties

Silent night out on the town

On our way home from the theater after seeing the most recent X-Men movie, Morgen and I kept finding ourselves surrounded by unusually noisy people—in the lobby, on the street corner, in the subway station. We were attempting to discuss the film, but we could barely hear each other. Every time this happened, I tried to move away to a quieter spot; noise has its place, but when I’m trying to think or carry on a conversation, I prefer relative silence. As we reviewed some of the fictional mutants and their super powers, I said, “If I were a mutant, they’d call me Silento. My super power would be the ability to create a large bubble of silence all around me.” In my book, that beats being able to throw balls of flame or have metal claws pop out of my hands.

I have always been baffled at the fact that people so frequently go to noisy parties, bars, clubs, and restaurants with the apparent intention of getting to know each other or spend quality time together. How is that supposed to work? How can you have a worthwhile conversation with someone when you must yell over loud music, not to mention all those other people yelling their own conversations at each other? Perhaps my telepathic powers are insufficiently developed, but as an ordinary human, it seems more sensible to me that if you want to talk to someone, you’d go to a place where you can hear and be heard. So I was delighted to learn of a relatively recent phenomenon sweeping the world: quiet parties, where the only rule is “no talking.” [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Highgate Cemetery

Toto, I don’t think we’re in London anymore

Guest Article by Jillian Hardee

London has hundreds of popular tourist spots that attract millions of visitors each year. I admit, I did the whole Big Ben to Westminster Abbey to Buckingham Palace to Tower of London circuit and I enjoyed it. I loved being able to walk out of the hotel and onto a street that contained a 500-year-old house right down the block from a modern tube station and an Indian curry restaurant. But the intricacies of this city, like any city, are often found off the beaten path.

Both my visits to London have included a hike up Highgate Hill and then a walk down the small, winding lane leading to Highgate Cemetery. Many are familiar with London’s abbeys and churchyards, but the real appeal of dead London is Highgate, often referred to as a Victorian Valhalla. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Beale Ciphers

Yet another story of secret codes and hidden treasure

Leaving aside religious symbology and questions of historical accuracy, The Da Vinci Code is just the latest in a long line of stories that follow roughly the same plot: someone discovers a series of mysterious clues (often with a code or a map thrown in) that supposedly lead to an absurdly valuable treasure. The hero undertakes a perilous adventure, outwitting villains who want to steal the treasure (as well as, perhaps, guardians who want to protect it), and eventually succeeds—only to discover that the treasure was not quite as it had been imagined after all. From Raiders of the Lost Ark to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to National Treasure, I’ve seen variations on this basic outline countless times. Few subjects ignite the imagination of the book-buying and filmgoing public as reliably as that of hidden treasure.

In the real world, stories of codes leading to buried treasure rarely have tidy endings—and indeed, even separating fact from fiction can be nearly impossible. Such is the case with one of the most intriguing cryptographic puzzles in modern history: a series of encrypted messages dating from the 19th century known as the Beale ciphers. These messages might lead to a hidden stash of gold, silver, and jewels worth tens of millions of dollars, they might be genuine directions to a treasure that no longer exists, they might be a hoax or a joke, or, intriguingly, they might be a misunderstood charity fundraising gimmick. But whether or not the codes lead to treasure, what captivates and infuriates cryptographers is that despite more than a century’s worth of effort by the best minds and machines, the most important parts of the messages remain stubbornly opaque. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Saffron

The ultimate culinary delicacy

As I’ve mentioned a few times, I’m a bit of a French food snob. Before Morgen and I went to France the first time, we did our homework—reading up on lots of French dishes, particularly regional specialties. The list of things we had to try included authentic bouillabaisse, an elaborate fish stew seasoned with saffron. Unfortunately, what constitutes “authentic” is a matter of strenuous debate among French chefs; there are many, many different recipes. But since the dish was invented in Marseille, a large Mediterranean port city, we decided we’d define “authentic” as “whatever they served us in Marseille.”

Based on what I’d read, I didn’t have much interest in Marseille apart from its food, and our schedule was tight. Our itinerary called for us to take an overnight train there from Paris and then pick up a rental car so that we could tool around Provence for a while. We’d have, at most, a few hours in the city, during which time we had just one task to accomplish. Our plan was to get in, get some bouillabaisse, and get out. After we got our car, we drove to the old part of the city where we’d heard we could find some great restaurants. Since it was still before lunchtime and they weren’t open yet, we walked around for about an hour, studying menus and building up an appetite. In the end, we couldn’t figure out which restaurant was the most authentic-looking, so we picked one at random. The waitress offered us menus, but we didn’t need them—we were on a mission. We dutifully ordered bouillabaisse for two, which turned out to be about five times as much as we could eat. But it was unbelievably good—a truly profound experience that made our visit to the city more than worthwhile. Ever since then, the smell of saffron has taken me back to that restaurant in Marseille. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Coelacanth

Re-historic fish

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Euskara

The extraordinary Basque language

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Emperor Norton

Monarch of San Francisco

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Coin Tossing

Putting a new spin on randomness

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Breathing Liquid

The frontiers of human respiration

It’s funny the way random little factoids stick in my head, even after many years. When I was in eighth grade, I did a report for my science class on Pascal’s Law, a description of the way fluids behave in a closed system (and the basis of all hydraulics, among other things). And in the course of researching that project I came across a tiny piece of information that blew my 13-year-old mind: the word fluid is not a synonym of liquid; a fluid can be a liquid or a gas. Really? I’ve been breathing a fluid all my life? I just couldn’t get over it. Neither could my friends—I thought my endless recitations of trivia made me look smarter, but they found it annoying.

Years later, I read a Star Trek novel in which the crew of the Enterprise encountered a race of humanoid beings who breathed a liquid; the book went to great lengths to describe what that experience was like for one of the humans who had to interact with them. Although this fictional liquid was compatible with human lungs, the psychological shock of breathing a liquid was pretty intense. Later still, the very same concept showed up in the 1989 film The Abyss. But hey, that’s all just science fiction, right? Amazingly enough, humans can indeed breathe certain very special liquids. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Bee Venom Therapy

A stinging endorsement

My experience may be exceptional, but I’ve found the several bee stings I’ve received over the years to be rather unpleasant—even after remembering my favorite things, I still felt pretty bad. So when a reader wrote to tell me about a treatment for such conditions as arthritis and multiple sclerosis (MS) that involves voluntarily stinging oneself with bees, I must admit I found the whole idea rather creepy and off-putting. Although this alternative therapy has not yet proven itself in widespread clinical trials, quite a few people swear by it, insisting that the benefits far outweigh the pain. And even some doctors are trying it with their patients. I feel obliged to insert the usual “don’t try this at home” and “your mileage may vary” disclaimers, but though the jury is officially still out, an increasing body of evidence suggests that there just may be something to this weird notion after all.

A Little Jab’ll Do Ya
Numerous poisons can—in small enough quantities and under the right conditions—produce beneficial effects. So it’s entirely plausible that the same is true of bee venom, or at least some of its components, even though its main purpose is to protect the bees by inflicting pain. Bee venom therapy is a subset of apitherapy, the medicinal use of any substances created by honeybees—including royal jelly and honey, each of which is already known to have some health benefits. Researchers have discovered a number of very interesting substances in bee venom—most prominently, melittin, a powerful anti-inflammatory agent. This gives some credence to the anecdotal reports that beekeepers who were stung repeatedly experienced a reduction in the pain and swelling of arthritis. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Tree Tumbo

Mystery plant of the desert

A couple of years ago, I began noticing that our home could use some brightening up, and I thought it might be a good idea to buy a few houseplants. But I’ve never done well with plants. I even managed to kill off several cacti, despite my best efforts. So I walked into a local plant store and asked what they had that could survive under my care. The owner assured me that African violets would be a safe choice. I said, “But no, really…flowers hate me. In fact, most plants run and hide when they see me coming.” But after listening to detailed instructions, I finally agreed that I could probably care for just this one small potted plant successfully. I found one with flowers just the right shade and took it home. Well, the good news is that the plant is still alive. The bad news is that its condition gives all new meaning to the expression “persistent vegetative state,” if you know what I mean. It hasn’t flowered in eons, some of its droopy leaves are a sickly shade of yellow, and it’s clearly hanging on simply to emphasize its ongoing contempt for me. My most sincere intentions notwithstanding, I just can’t seem to keep plants healthy.

When I saw pictures of a plant called Welwitschia mirabilis (also known by such names as “tree tumbo” or “onion of the desert”) it looked very much like it could have been a previously beautiful specimen that had the misfortune of spending a season or two in my yard. In other words, it looked pretty sick and ugly. But appearances, in this case, are deceiving. This incredibly odd and unattractive plant can thrive in extraordinarily inhospitable conditions—and that’s just the start. The tree tumbo is without a doubt one of the world’s oddest plants. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Optical Painters' Aids

A matter of perspective

Although I like to think of myself as a multitalented “Renaissance man” of sorts, I must admit that when it comes to drawing and painting, I have absolutely no ability. I’m truly pitiful at Pictionary, and I couldn’t paint my way out of a paper bag. Or so I’ve always thought. Based on what I’ve been reading lately, I could probably produce some fantastic art from the inside of a very large paper bag, as long as it had a pinhole on one side and pretty bright light outside. All I’d have to do is trace the image projected by this primitive camera obscura. According to a controversial theory, this technique—or something very much like it—gave some world-renowned artists a little help as far back as 1420. Then again…maybe not. Getting to the bottom of this puzzle has been the consuming passion of quite a few artists, historians, and optical engineers over the past several years.

Without a Trace
Tracing over a projected image is a straightforward notion, but if you’ve ever tried it (as I have) you probably discovered that getting good results is not as easy as it sounds. The easy part is getting the proportions right. But lots of things in any image lack well-defined borders, and trying to make sense of textures and the effects of light and shadow while tracing something is quite a complex undertaking. If, instead of tracing, I were painting, the challenge would become even greater, as I’d have to carefully match gradations in color—and as soon as I applied a dark paint to the light surface, the image in that area would virtually disappear. All that to say: projection or no projection, producing a convincingly realistic drawing or painting takes a lot of skill and practice. So if it turned out that one of the great masters from centuries ago really did pull this off, I’d be no less impressed by the final product—and more impressed by the artist’s cleverness. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Milgram Obedience Experiments

Just following orders

As a teenager, I never thought of myself as someone who had a problem with authority. I may not have liked what I was being told to do, and I may have complained, but it was not in my nature to say no. I had my first crisis of authority when I was 16. I was learning to drive, and I’d already failed my driving test—twice. (The first time, I couldn’t parallel park and I ran into a cone; the second time, I didn’t come to a complete stop at a stop sign.) After several more weeks of practicing and diligently studying the driver’s manual, I was taking my third and final test. If I failed that, I’d have to apply for a learner’s permit all over again and endure embarrassing months of being the only person my age without a license. So the pressure was on. With the examiner, a police officer, in the passenger’s seat and sweat on my brow, I carefully completed the entire course—and I thought I did well.

At the very end, the officer told me to pull over at a certain spot and park the car. And I had a moment of complete panic: the spot he’d indicated was just a few feet from a stop sign, and I remembered from the driver’s manual that it was illegal to park so close. Was this one last test? If I obeyed, I thought, I could be failed for breaking the law. So I hesitated and said, “Isn’t that too close to the stop sign?” The officer became furious and started berating me for my arrogance, reminding me that the manual said, “…unless directed otherwise by a uniformed officer of the law.” Tugging at his sleeve, he ranted, “What does this look like, my pajamas?” He went on and on until I was about ready to shrivel up and die, but in the end, he passed me anyway. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

InterPlay

Getting grown-ups back into their bodies

There’s an old joke that I’ve heard attributed, in one form or another, to numerous religious groups. It goes: “Why do Baptists (or Methodists, or Mennonites, or Jews, or whatever) prohibit premarital sex? Because it could lead to dancing.” The implication, obviously, is that the group’s taboo against dancing is so strong that it overshadows the moral principle that gave rise to it in the first place; dancing becomes not just a potential path to evil but an evil in and of itself. One of the theological views that sometimes motivates this position is that the body (or “flesh”) is inherently sinful or corrupt, and must be ruthlessly subjugated to the purer values of the spirit. This was certainly the view of the religious tradition in which I grew up. Any activity that even suggested carnal pleasure outside strictly delimited boundaries was an immoral concession to humanity’s fallen nature.

Although this sort of thinking may be an extreme example, it’s indicative of a broader and older cultural trend, which some people refer to as the “mind-body split.” Whether you trace this trend back to Cartesian dualism, the early days of Christianity, or some other source, it amounts to a belief that the body is somehow an ontologically separate entity from the mind (or “soul,” or “spirit”). Perhaps the two are even in competition or conflict with each other. Even if, as adults, we recognize that by implicitly accepting this split we’ve become disintegrated and unbalanced, it’s difficult to reprogram ourselves to recover that sense of being a single, unified whole. A practice called InterPlay exists to encourage that process by helping people to rediscover and express one of their most basic, primal needs: play. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Parkour

Turning a city into an obstacle course

When I began studying t’ai chi almost 10 years ago, one of my reasons for doing so was a desire to learn how to move more gracefully and meaningfully. I thought (correctly, as it turned out) that t’ai chi would be a safe, interesting, and enjoyable way to learn what it feels like to move intentionally and become more aware of my posture, balance, and physical interactions with my environment.

When I first read about a sport (or art or activity) called parkour, the philosophy behind it sounded very similar: an emphasis on fluid, elegant, graceful motions. But in practice, parkour is about as different from t’ai chi as I can imagine. It’s sometimes considered an “extreme” sport; as its participants dash around a city, they may vault over fences, run up walls, and even jump from rooftop to rooftop. So you won’t see senior citizens doing it in the park on Sunday mornings, but if you do witness it, you may think you’re watching a stunt person on a movie set. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Quiet Parties

Silent night out on the town

On our way home from the theater after seeing the most recent X-Men movie, Morgen and I kept finding ourselves surrounded by unusually noisy people—in the lobby, on the street corner, in the subway station. We were attempting to discuss the film, but we could barely hear each other. Every time this happened, I tried to move away to a quieter spot; noise has its place, but when I’m trying to think or carry on a conversation, I prefer relative silence. As we reviewed some of the fictional mutants and their super powers, I said, “If I were a mutant, they’d call me Silento. My super power would be the ability to create a large bubble of silence all around me.” In my book, that beats being able to throw balls of flame or have metal claws pop out of my hands.

I have always been baffled at the fact that people so frequently go to noisy parties, bars, clubs, and restaurants with the apparent intention of getting to know each other or spend quality time together. How is that supposed to work? How can you have a worthwhile conversation with someone when you must yell over loud music, not to mention all those other people yelling their own conversations at each other? Perhaps my telepathic powers are insufficiently developed, but as an ordinary human, it seems more sensible to me that if you want to talk to someone, you’d go to a place where you can hear and be heard. So I was delighted to learn of a relatively recent phenomenon sweeping the world: quiet parties, where the only rule is “no talking.” [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Highgate Cemetery

Toto, I don’t think we’re in London anymore

Guest Article by Jillian Hardee

London has hundreds of popular tourist spots that attract millions of visitors each year. I admit, I did the whole Big Ben to Westminster Abbey to Buckingham Palace to Tower of London circuit and I enjoyed it. I loved being able to walk out of the hotel and onto a street that contained a 500-year-old house right down the block from a modern tube station and an Indian curry restaurant. But the intricacies of this city, like any city, are often found off the beaten path.

Both my visits to London have included a hike up Highgate Hill and then a walk down the small, winding lane leading to Highgate Cemetery. Many are familiar with London’s abbeys and churchyards, but the real appeal of dead London is Highgate, often referred to as a Victorian Valhalla. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Beale Ciphers

Yet another story of secret codes and hidden treasure

Leaving aside religious symbology and questions of historical accuracy, The Da Vinci Code is just the latest in a long line of stories that follow roughly the same plot: someone discovers a series of mysterious clues (often with a code or a map thrown in) that supposedly lead to an absurdly valuable treasure. The hero undertakes a perilous adventure, outwitting villains who want to steal the treasure (as well as, perhaps, guardians who want to protect it), and eventually succeeds—only to discover that the treasure was not quite as it had been imagined after all. From Raiders of the Lost Ark to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to National Treasure, I’ve seen variations on this basic outline countless times. Few subjects ignite the imagination of the book-buying and filmgoing public as reliably as that of hidden treasure.

In the real world, stories of codes leading to buried treasure rarely have tidy endings—and indeed, even separating fact from fiction can be nearly impossible. Such is the case with one of the most intriguing cryptographic puzzles in modern history: a series of encrypted messages dating from the 19th century known as the Beale ciphers. These messages might lead to a hidden stash of gold, silver, and jewels worth tens of millions of dollars, they might be genuine directions to a treasure that no longer exists, they might be a hoax or a joke, or, intriguingly, they might be a misunderstood charity fundraising gimmick. But whether or not the codes lead to treasure, what captivates and infuriates cryptographers is that despite more than a century’s worth of effort by the best minds and machines, the most important parts of the messages remain stubbornly opaque. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Saffron

The ultimate culinary delicacy

As I’ve mentioned a few times, I’m a bit of a French food snob. Before Morgen and I went to France the first time, we did our homework—reading up on lots of French dishes, particularly regional specialties. The list of things we had to try included authentic bouillabaisse, an elaborate fish stew seasoned with saffron. Unfortunately, what constitutes “authentic” is a matter of strenuous debate among French chefs; there are many, many different recipes. But since the dish was invented in Marseille, a large Mediterranean port city, we decided we’d define “authentic” as “whatever they served us in Marseille.”

Based on what I’d read, I didn’t have much interest in Marseille apart from its food, and our schedule was tight. Our itinerary called for us to take an overnight train there from Paris and then pick up a rental car so that we could tool around Provence for a while. We’d have, at most, a few hours in the city, during which time we had just one task to accomplish. Our plan was to get in, get some bouillabaisse, and get out. After we got our car, we drove to the old part of the city where we’d heard we could find some great restaurants. Since it was still before lunchtime and they weren’t open yet, we walked around for about an hour, studying menus and building up an appetite. In the end, we couldn’t figure out which restaurant was the most authentic-looking, so we picked one at random. The waitress offered us menus, but we didn’t need them—we were on a mission. We dutifully ordered bouillabaisse for two, which turned out to be about five times as much as we could eat. But it was unbelievably good—a truly profound experience that made our visit to the city more than worthwhile. Ever since then, the smell of saffron has taken me back to that restaurant in Marseille. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Coelacanth

Re-historic fish

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Euskara

The extraordinary Basque language

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Emperor Norton

Monarch of San Francisco

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Coin Tossing

Putting a new spin on randomness

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Breathing Liquid

The frontiers of human respiration

It’s funny the way random little factoids stick in my head, even after many years. When I was in eighth grade, I did a report for my science class on Pascal’s Law, a description of the way fluids behave in a closed system (and the basis of all hydraulics, among other things). And in the course of researching that project I came across a tiny piece of information that blew my 13-year-old mind: the word fluid is not a synonym of liquid; a fluid can be a liquid or a gas. Really? I’ve been breathing a fluid all my life? I just couldn’t get over it. Neither could my friends—I thought my endless recitations of trivia made me look smarter, but they found it annoying.

Years later, I read a Star Trek novel in which the crew of the Enterprise encountered a race of humanoid beings who breathed a liquid; the book went to great lengths to describe what that experience was like for one of the humans who had to interact with them. Although this fictional liquid was compatible with human lungs, the psychological shock of breathing a liquid was pretty intense. Later still, the very same concept showed up in the 1989 film The Abyss. But hey, that’s all just science fiction, right? Amazingly enough, humans can indeed breathe certain very special liquids. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Bee Venom Therapy

A stinging endorsement

My experience may be exceptional, but I’ve found the several bee stings I’ve received over the years to be rather unpleasant—even after remembering my favorite things, I still felt pretty bad. So when a reader wrote to tell me about a treatment for such conditions as arthritis and multiple sclerosis (MS) that involves voluntarily stinging oneself with bees, I must admit I found the whole idea rather creepy and off-putting. Although this alternative therapy has not yet proven itself in widespread clinical trials, quite a few people swear by it, insisting that the benefits far outweigh the pain. And even some doctors are trying it with their patients. I feel obliged to insert the usual “don’t try this at home” and “your mileage may vary” disclaimers, but though the jury is officially still out, an increasing body of evidence suggests that there just may be something to this weird notion after all.

A Little Jab’ll Do Ya
Numerous poisons can—in small enough quantities and under the right conditions—produce beneficial effects. So it’s entirely plausible that the same is true of bee venom, or at least some of its components, even though its main purpose is to protect the bees by inflicting pain. Bee venom therapy is a subset of apitherapy, the medicinal use of any substances created by honeybees—including royal jelly and honey, each of which is already known to have some health benefits. Researchers have discovered a number of very interesting substances in bee venom—most prominently, melittin, a powerful anti-inflammatory agent. This gives some credence to the anecdotal reports that beekeepers who were stung repeatedly experienced a reduction in the pain and swelling of arthritis. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Tree Tumbo

Mystery plant of the desert

A couple of years ago, I began noticing that our home could use some brightening up, and I thought it might be a good idea to buy a few houseplants. But I’ve never done well with plants. I even managed to kill off several cacti, despite my best efforts. So I walked into a local plant store and asked what they had that could survive under my care. The owner assured me that African violets would be a safe choice. I said, “But no, really…flowers hate me. In fact, most plants run and hide when they see me coming.” But after listening to detailed instructions, I finally agreed that I could probably care for just this one small potted plant successfully. I found one with flowers just the right shade and took it home. Well, the good news is that the plant is still alive. The bad news is that its condition gives all new meaning to the expression “persistent vegetative state,” if you know what I mean. It hasn’t flowered in eons, some of its droopy leaves are a sickly shade of yellow, and it’s clearly hanging on simply to emphasize its ongoing contempt for me. My most sincere intentions notwithstanding, I just can’t seem to keep plants healthy.

When I saw pictures of a plant called Welwitschia mirabilis (also known by such names as “tree tumbo” or “onion of the desert”) it looked very much like it could have been a previously beautiful specimen that had the misfortune of spending a season or two in my yard. In other words, it looked pretty sick and ugly. But appearances, in this case, are deceiving. This incredibly odd and unattractive plant can thrive in extraordinarily inhospitable conditions—and that’s just the start. The tree tumbo is without a doubt one of the world’s oddest plants. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Optical Painters' Aids

A matter of perspective

Although I like to think of myself as a multitalented “Renaissance man” of sorts, I must admit that when it comes to drawing and painting, I have absolutely no ability. I’m truly pitiful at Pictionary, and I couldn’t paint my way out of a paper bag. Or so I’ve always thought. Based on what I’ve been reading lately, I could probably produce some fantastic art from the inside of a very large paper bag, as long as it had a pinhole on one side and pretty bright light outside. All I’d have to do is trace the image projected by this primitive camera obscura. According to a controversial theory, this technique—or something very much like it—gave some world-renowned artists a little help as far back as 1420. Then again…maybe not. Getting to the bottom of this puzzle has been the consuming passion of quite a few artists, historians, and optical engineers over the past several years.

Without a Trace
Tracing over a projected image is a straightforward notion, but if you’ve ever tried it (as I have) you probably discovered that getting good results is not as easy as it sounds. The easy part is getting the proportions right. But lots of things in any image lack well-defined borders, and trying to make sense of textures and the effects of light and shadow while tracing something is quite a complex undertaking. If, instead of tracing, I were painting, the challenge would become even greater, as I’d have to carefully match gradations in color—and as soon as I applied a dark paint to the light surface, the image in that area would virtually disappear. All that to say: projection or no projection, producing a convincingly realistic drawing or painting takes a lot of skill and practice. So if it turned out that one of the great masters from centuries ago really did pull this off, I’d be no less impressed by the final product—and more impressed by the artist’s cleverness. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Milgram Obedience Experiments

Just following orders

As a teenager, I never thought of myself as someone who had a problem with authority. I may not have liked what I was being told to do, and I may have complained, but it was not in my nature to say no. I had my first crisis of authority when I was 16. I was learning to drive, and I’d already failed my driving test—twice. (The first time, I couldn’t parallel park and I ran into a cone; the second time, I didn’t come to a complete stop at a stop sign.) After several more weeks of practicing and diligently studying the driver’s manual, I was taking my third and final test. If I failed that, I’d have to apply for a learner’s permit all over again and endure embarrassing months of being the only person my age without a license. So the pressure was on. With the examiner, a police officer, in the passenger’s seat and sweat on my brow, I carefully completed the entire course—and I thought I did well.

At the very end, the officer told me to pull over at a certain spot and park the car. And I had a moment of complete panic: the spot he’d indicated was just a few feet from a stop sign, and I remembered from the driver’s manual that it was illegal to park so close. Was this one last test? If I obeyed, I thought, I could be failed for breaking the law. So I hesitated and said, “Isn’t that too close to the stop sign?” The officer became furious and started berating me for my arrogance, reminding me that the manual said, “…unless directed otherwise by a uniformed officer of the law.” Tugging at his sleeve, he ranted, “What does this look like, my pajamas?” He went on and on until I was about ready to shrivel up and die, but in the end, he passed me anyway. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

InterPlay

Getting grown-ups back into their bodies

There’s an old joke that I’ve heard attributed, in one form or another, to numerous religious groups. It goes: “Why do Baptists (or Methodists, or Mennonites, or Jews, or whatever) prohibit premarital sex? Because it could lead to dancing.” The implication, obviously, is that the group’s taboo against dancing is so strong that it overshadows the moral principle that gave rise to it in the first place; dancing becomes not just a potential path to evil but an evil in and of itself. One of the theological views that sometimes motivates this position is that the body (or “flesh”) is inherently sinful or corrupt, and must be ruthlessly subjugated to the purer values of the spirit. This was certainly the view of the religious tradition in which I grew up. Any activity that even suggested carnal pleasure outside strictly delimited boundaries was an immoral concession to humanity’s fallen nature.

Although this sort of thinking may be an extreme example, it’s indicative of a broader and older cultural trend, which some people refer to as the “mind-body split.” Whether you trace this trend back to Cartesian dualism, the early days of Christianity, or some other source, it amounts to a belief that the body is somehow an ontologically separate entity from the mind (or “soul,” or “spirit”). Perhaps the two are even in competition or conflict with each other. Even if, as adults, we recognize that by implicitly accepting this split we’ve become disintegrated and unbalanced, it’s difficult to reprogram ourselves to recover that sense of being a single, unified whole. A practice called InterPlay exists to encourage that process by helping people to rediscover and express one of their most basic, primal needs: play. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Parkour

Turning a city into an obstacle course

When I began studying t’ai chi almost 10 years ago, one of my reasons for doing so was a desire to learn how to move more gracefully and meaningfully. I thought (correctly, as it turned out) that t’ai chi would be a safe, interesting, and enjoyable way to learn what it feels like to move intentionally and become more aware of my posture, balance, and physical interactions with my environment.

When I first read about a sport (or art or activity) called parkour, the philosophy behind it sounded very similar: an emphasis on fluid, elegant, graceful motions. But in practice, parkour is about as different from t’ai chi as I can imagine. It’s sometimes considered an “extreme” sport; as its participants dash around a city, they may vault over fences, run up walls, and even jump from rooftop to rooftop. So you won’t see senior citizens doing it in the park on Sunday mornings, but if you do witness it, you may think you’re watching a stunt person on a movie set. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Quiet Parties

Silent night out on the town

On our way home from the theater after seeing the most recent X-Men movie, Morgen and I kept finding ourselves surrounded by unusually noisy people—in the lobby, on the street corner, in the subway station. We were attempting to discuss the film, but we could barely hear each other. Every time this happened, I tried to move away to a quieter spot; noise has its place, but when I’m trying to think or carry on a conversation, I prefer relative silence. As we reviewed some of the fictional mutants and their super powers, I said, “If I were a mutant, they’d call me Silento. My super power would be the ability to create a large bubble of silence all around me.” In my book, that beats being able to throw balls of flame or have metal claws pop out of my hands.

I have always been baffled at the fact that people so frequently go to noisy parties, bars, clubs, and restaurants with the apparent intention of getting to know each other or spend quality time together. How is that supposed to work? How can you have a worthwhile conversation with someone when you must yell over loud music, not to mention all those other people yelling their own conversations at each other? Perhaps my telepathic powers are insufficiently developed, but as an ordinary human, it seems more sensible to me that if you want to talk to someone, you’d go to a place where you can hear and be heard. So I was delighted to learn of a relatively recent phenomenon sweeping the world: quiet parties, where the only rule is “no talking.” [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Highgate Cemetery

Toto, I don’t think we’re in London anymore

Guest Article by Jillian Hardee

London has hundreds of popular tourist spots that attract millions of visitors each year. I admit, I did the whole Big Ben to Westminster Abbey to Buckingham Palace to Tower of London circuit and I enjoyed it. I loved being able to walk out of the hotel and onto a street that contained a 500-year-old house right down the block from a modern tube station and an Indian curry restaurant. But the intricacies of this city, like any city, are often found off the beaten path.

Both my visits to London have included a hike up Highgate Hill and then a walk down the small, winding lane leading to Highgate Cemetery. Many are familiar with London’s abbeys and churchyards, but the real appeal of dead London is Highgate, often referred to as a Victorian Valhalla. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Beale Ciphers

Yet another story of secret codes and hidden treasure

Leaving aside religious symbology and questions of historical accuracy, The Da Vinci Code is just the latest in a long line of stories that follow roughly the same plot: someone discovers a series of mysterious clues (often with a code or a map thrown in) that supposedly lead to an absurdly valuable treasure. The hero undertakes a perilous adventure, outwitting villains who want to steal the treasure (as well as, perhaps, guardians who want to protect it), and eventually succeeds—only to discover that the treasure was not quite as it had been imagined after all. From Raiders of the Lost Ark to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to National Treasure, I’ve seen variations on this basic outline countless times. Few subjects ignite the imagination of the book-buying and filmgoing public as reliably as that of hidden treasure.

In the real world, stories of codes leading to buried treasure rarely have tidy endings—and indeed, even separating fact from fiction can be nearly impossible. Such is the case with one of the most intriguing cryptographic puzzles in modern history: a series of encrypted messages dating from the 19th century known as the Beale ciphers. These messages might lead to a hidden stash of gold, silver, and jewels worth tens of millions of dollars, they might be genuine directions to a treasure that no longer exists, they might be a hoax or a joke, or, intriguingly, they might be a misunderstood charity fundraising gimmick. But whether or not the codes lead to treasure, what captivates and infuriates cryptographers is that despite more than a century’s worth of effort by the best minds and machines, the most important parts of the messages remain stubbornly opaque. [Article Continues…]

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