From the archives…

Pastrami

Cure for the common deli

Sometimes the ideas for interesting topics come to me in rather roundabout ways. For instance, I was trying to come up with just one more topic that could somehow be construed as involving things that are stuffed. As usual, I asked my wife, Morgen, if she had any ideas. She made a few suggestions, none of which really grabbed me. Finally she said she was stumped and apparently gave up. A few minutes later, however, she handed me a book by Patricia Volk titled Stuffed: Adventures of a Restaurant Family. That was, of course, a very promising sign. Then she pointed out that the author’s family had run a restaurant in New York called Morgen’s—spelled the same way as my wife’s name. A lovely coincidence. (Morgen, it turns out, is the maiden name of the author’s mother—and also the name of a beagle that Volk and her sister once owned.) Flipping a few pages ahead, my wife showed me a picture of the author’s great-grandfather, Sussman Volk, whose claim to fame had been that he “brought pastrami to the New World.” Now we were getting somewhere.

All right, I understand that pastrami is not ordinarily stuffed or used to stuff anything else, but that’s not the point. The point is that I had never spent so much as five seconds thinking about pastrami before, but now that I knew there was at least one interesting story about it, I suddenly began to realize there were other questions to ponder too. Such as: What is pastrami, anyway? [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Piñatas

History of a breakthrough

I can’t remember when I first learned of the existence of piñatas, but it must have been at a very early age. Perhaps a kindergarten teacher was demonstrating papier-mâché and told us that people sometimes use it to make colorful candy jars that you can break open with a stick at a birthday party. There’s nothing about this concept that any kid wouldn’t appreciate. Candy: good. Party games: good. Wanton destruction of decorative objects with full parental consent: good. All in all, a great concept, and I always wondered why I didn’t get to have one at my birthday parties.

Then one day, I went to a friend’s birthday party and had my first and only hands-on experience with a piñata. In fact, “hands-on” is an exaggeration. Like each of the other children, I was blindfolded, spun around, and allowed three swings with a long stick in what I could only guess was the right direction. I didn’t break the piñata; I don’t think I even hit it—the adult who was tugging at the rope from which the piñata was suspended to “make the game more challenging” saw to that. Then it was the next kid’s turn, and he had essentially the same experience. Finally, the birthday boy had his turn, and in what can only be described as an incredible coincidence, he managed to beat the stuffing out of the thing. Did I then at least get my fair share of the spoils? I did not. Being the deferential type, I did not push and shove to gather up the candy, and by the time I got to it, all the good stuff was gone. By the end of the party I had completely revised my opinion of piñatas as being a really bad idea. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Modern Mummies

Resurrecting the art of arrested decay

We have all heard of people who had their bodies cryogenically preserved after death in the hope that some day, medical science will be able to bring them back to life and cure whatever illness caused their demise. That hope may be overly optimistic, but I can at least respect the logic behind the decision. Unlikely though it may be, I can’t say categorically that such a restoration is beyond the reach of some future science. With that single exception, however, I have never understood the ages-old practice of keeping dead bodies from decaying naturally. It’s not that I’m some soulless pragmatist, but I believe that death is the point at which a body becomes superfluous to its erstwhile owner—keeping it intact thereafter seems superstitious and creepy. Of course, that’s just my opinion. Some of my best friends are superstitious and creepy, and I don’t hold it against them.

Grave Concerns
Each culture has somewhat different beliefs about what should happen to a corpse. In North America, the majority of the deceased are embalmed so that they’ll look lifelike for a funeral several days later; they are then buried in airtight caskets inside concrete vaults or grave liners. Some people may derive comfort from the notion that a departed loved one is still somehow whole, but in ancient Egypt, much more was at stake than the feelings of the bereaved. During the centuries when the art of mummification was practiced, it was based on a deeply held belief that only if the tissues of one’s body were kept intact after death would the soul survive throughout eternity. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Demosthenes' Stones

Improving your diction, Athenian style

It’s a good thing I had never heard of Demosthenes when I was a child. I would have gotten in trouble. My mom would have said, “Don’t talk with your mouth full.” And I would have replied, “Don’t you want me to be a famous orator like Demosthenes? I’m training!” And then I would have been sent to my room without any more of whatever my mouth was full of. Kids, this is why grownups are always saying things like, “You’re too young to understand. Just take my word for it.” It’s for your own good. And if you get in trouble for talking with your mouth full, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Repeat After Me
Even as an adult, I get in trouble over Demosthenes. A while back, Morgen and I were watching “My Fair Lady” on TV. For those unfamiliar with the story, a linguistics professor in London named Henry Higgins makes a wager with a friend that he can rid a working-class girl, Eliza Doolittle, of her Cockney accent and teach her to speak like a proper lady. In one of his many drills, he insists that Eliza fill her mouth with marbles and then read a series of phrases. So of course I said, “Oh, just like Demosthenes.” Morgen gave me one of her patented looks that means “How do you expect me to know these obscure facts if I don’t read about them on Interesting Thing of the Day?” I was tempted to respond with a look that meant “Oh come on, everybody knows about Demosthenes,” but I opted instead for the path of marital concord. After all, one shouldn’t look a gift topic in the mouth. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The S Curve

What is wrong with success?

Guest Article by Rajagopal Sukumar

While the saying “success begets success” has almost become a cliché, there is no dearth of stories covering inexplicable failures of extremely successful people and corporations. Reading some of these stories and the books on this topic led me to the question: What if there is something fundamental that we are missing about success that leads to all these spectacular failures?

S Curve
My research brought me to the fascinating concept of the S Curve. Apparently, when you plot expertise with respect to time, it traces an S-shaped curve.

As depicted in the accompanying diagram, when we begin learning a skill, we are a bit slow initially at the tail of the S curve. As time progresses, learning proceeds at a dramatically increased speed, helping us to climb the steep slope of the S curve very quickly. At the top of the slope, we are deemed experts in that particular skill. From then on, even if we put a lot of effort into improving ourselves in that area, the resultant learning will not be proportional. The top end of the S curve is also called the slope of diminishing returns. At the top of the S curve, many people succumb to the effects of hubris, which gives them a false sense of security because the world believes and acknowledges that they are the experts in that field. Unfortunately, the world keeps moving and some other new skill becomes important, which renders this expert obsolete. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Perpetual Motion Machines

The endless quest for free energy

I distinctly remember learning the laws of thermodynamics in a science class—it must have been around eighth grade. After explaining these laws, the teacher added, “…and that is why perpetual motion machines are impossible.” So this fact has been firmly implanted in my brain for a very long time.

What I did not realize back then is that over the centuries, hundreds—if not thousands—of hopeful inventors have dedicated their lives to disproving these laws by building machines they believed would run indefinitely with no input of energy. Patent offices around the world became so inundated with designs for alleged perpetual motion machines that they now routinely dismiss such submissions without so much as a glance. But although every such design ever attempted has failed, the pace of research to find that subtle trick that results in perpetual motion has, if anything, accelerated. While doing some research on another topic, I stumbled upon a Web site listing an incredible number of current or recent projects. And sadly, many of these are not merely futile but fraudulent, as their developers convince investors to fork over large sums of money to pay for something that is just not possible. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Propeller Beanies

The story of the geek’s icon

When I write technical books and articles, I generally assume my audience is composed of ordinary people, not programmers or computer experts. I try to provide enough context and detail so that any reasonably intelligent person can get the gist of what I’m saying, even without prior experience in the topic I’m discussing. But in one of my ebooks, I described a certain procedure that, because it was somewhat complex, should only be attempted by those with a fair amount of computer know-how. The way I put it was this: “Unlike everything else in this book, this rather involved (and entirely optional) technique does require you to wear a propeller beanie…”

A few months later, I got an email from the man who was translating the book into German. His very reasonable question: “What is a propeller beanie?”

I found it surprisingly difficult to answer the question. I can describe what a propeller beanie looks like, but if the translator put the German equivalent for “child’s skullcap with a decorative plastic propeller” in the book, that would not be meaningful to the readers—they’d wonder, “Why must I wear a silly hat to be able to do such-and-such with my computer?” After explaining, as best I could, the cultural significance of the propeller beanie in America, I told the translator that it would be best just to say, “This technique requires you to be technically proficient.” I have no idea if there is any shorthand symbol in German that represents the same bundle of ideas that the propeller beanie does in English. But this exchange, besides bringing back memories of graduate linguistics courses in the problems of translation, made me wonder where the propeller beanie actually came from, and how it came to mean what it does today. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Hurdy-Gurdy

Violin, bagpipes, and kazoo combined

Guest Article by Jackie Chappell

In 1996, I bought an album I knew next to nothing about, by an artist I had never heard of before, on the strength of the album being issued on Peter Gabriel’s excellent Real World record label. The album was “Big City Secrets” by Joseph Arthur, and from the very first track I knew that I had made a good purchase. However, I really sat up and listened when I got to track 3, “Mikel K.” In the background of the song there was a really odd-sounding instrument. It sounded a bit like a violin (or a folk-style fiddle) played with a never-ending bow, and had a bagpipe-like drone note in the background. As if that wasn’t enough sonic complexity for one instrument, there was also a rhythmic buzzing sound, slightly reminiscent of a kazoo. What in the world was it? A quick check of the liner notes revealed only one instrument that I hadn’t heard of before—a hurdy-gurdy.

Don’t They Usually Come with a Monkey?
The first image that popped into my head was of a kind of barrel organ, where a handle is turned to drive bellows which force air through organ pipes, and which is also usually accompanied by some kind of simian assistant. I was so fascinated by the sound that I did some research, and found that my misconception was a common one. The hurdy-gurdy (or vielle à roue, as it is known in France) is played by turning a handle, but the resemblance to a barrel organ ends there. The body of the instrument can be box-shaped or with a rounded back like a lute, and many examples are beautifully decorated with inlaid wood. The handle turns a wheel covered in rosin, which vibrates the strings; the hurdy-gurdy functions like a violin with an endless bow, so that there is no pause in the sound at the end of a bow stroke. Instead of sounding notes using the fingers, the musician presses sliding, un-sprung keys which make contact with the strings and shorten them to make a sound of the required pitch. The drone comes from one or more strings which do not get pressed by the keys, and therefore sound the same notes continuously. The final part of the puzzle is the moveable bridge, or chien (French for dog), which supports one of the drone strings and can be manipulated by a skilled player so that it vibrates against the body of the hurdy-gurdy during playing, making a rhythmic buzzing noise. The whole ensemble has a driving, continuous sound, with its own percussion produced by the chien; it is impossible not to tap your feet along with the music. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Story of Doughnuts

The truth, the hole truth…

In the mid-1990s, I visited Las Vegas for the first time. I was there for an internet conference, and a friend of mine who had been there many times took it upon himself to show me all the standard tourist sites and make sure I got the complete Las Vegas experience. We walked down the Strip, taking in the obligatory pirate show, erupting volcano, and other spectacles. But there was one sight I had never heard of that was later to become a regular pilgrimage for me: the Krispy Kreme Doughnuts shop in the Excalibur hotel.

At that time, Krispy Kreme hadn’t expanded to become the phenomenon it is today. The only commercial doughnut shop chain I had ever known was Dunkin’ Donuts. But Krispy Kreme was definitely something special. For one thing, visitors could watch the doughnuts being made; a window ran along the side of the shop where the line formed. I was fascinated by the mechanism that flipped the doughnuts over in the oil when they were half-cooked, and watched in awe as they passed through a curtain of glaze. Although doughnuts are such a simple food, I felt I was watching something magical. Then I tasted one, and was even more impressed. I had never known what a fresh, hot doughnut was like—the difference from what I had experienced before is like that of fresh bread hot from the oven compared to week-old supermarket bread. It was light, soft, perfectly sweet—delicious. I couldn’t understand why Krispy Kreme hadn’t taken over the world yet; of course, it was only to be a matter of time. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Sedona's Energy Vortexes

The world’s most popular invisible tourist attraction

Allow me to get this disclaimer out of the way right up front: today’s interesting thing might not exist. But let’s be fair—I am not one to judge something by its ontological status alone. If it does exist, it’s very interesting indeed, and if it doesn’t, the widespread belief in its existence is equally interesting. I am referring to a natural phenomenon supposedly found in several places around Sedona, Arizona: something called an energy vortex.

The town of Sedona, about two hours’ drive north of Phoenix, is situated in an area of rare and stunning natural beauty. Towering rock formations and iron-rich reddish soil give the landscape an otherworldly appearance. This looks like what you imagined as the Old West, and countless films have been shot here. Kids will recognize it as the habitat of Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote. If you’re looking for a scenic vacation spot, Sedona is the place to go. It’s a favorite destination for romantic getaways, with a resort or a spa around every corner. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Globe Theatre

Shakespeare’s ideal venue, then and now

In my senior year of high school, all the students in my English class were required to write two term papers. But two of us were granted a special exception. The teacher gave my friend Nick and me the option of handing in alternative projects in lieu of the second paper. In my case, I had written a funny yet tragic account of an unhappy relationship—I use the term loosely—that I had experienced the previous summer. I was writing it just for fun, but my teacher found out about it and said I could type it up and turn it in as my second essay. I did—and got an A, too. Nick was the only student in class who was not required to type his term papers. As long as I’d known him—since kindergarten—he had said he wanted to be an architect. And he had developed an architect’s handwriting: every letter perfectly formed. The teacher’s offer to Nick was that he could build a scale model of the Globe Theatre out of Popsicle sticks instead of handing in a second paper. He declined, and I always thought that was a pity. We had learned about Shakespeare’s famous London venue in class, and I would have loved to see what it looked like. Besides, I couldn’t imagine that writing a term paper would have been more fun—but maybe that was just me.

I was thinking about this last year when I visited London for the first time. I had heard that the Globe Theatre, destroyed centuries ago, had recently been rebuilt, and I was eager to see it. I didn’t particularly care if I saw a play there; I just wanted to go inside and look around. When we got to the Globe, on the afternoon of our last day in London, they had just admitted the last tour group of the day; the only way left to see it that day was to buy tickets for a play. The box office informed us that the show was almost sold out. There were two options: we could buy either fabulously expensive tickets for seats behind a pole that would obscure our view, or cheap tickets for standing room. We debated which option we’d dislike the least, but by the time we had made up our minds two minutes later, all the remaining tickets for the day were gone. So all I got to see of the Globe Theatre was the outside, the gift shop, and the ticket office, none of which was especially impressive. (Note to self: plan ahead next time.) [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Walloon

Green Bay and the French connection

When I mentioned to Morgen that I was trying to come up with another good language-related topic to write about, she was silent for a moment, then proclaimed matter-of-factly, “Walloon.” This being a term I’d never heard of, I gave her my standard Scowl of Incomprehension, which she met with her deadly Blank Stare of Shame. This silent exchange is what we do when one of us is incredulous that the other could possibly lack some crucial piece of knowledge. Finally I broke down and said, “OK, what’s that?” Still expressionless, she said, “It’s a language spoken in Belgium.” Hmmmm. French I knew about, but not this one. Sounds really exciting. I said, “Is it interesting?” She said, “Maybe.” And that was that.

It turned out, as it always does, that she was right—it is interesting. But the very first interesting fact I learned about Walloon was one she wasn’t even aware of: Belgium is not the only place where native speakers of this language are found. The other is Green Bay, Wisconsin. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Bahasa Indonesia

The complex story of a simple language

During college I spent a summer in Indonesia, and naturally I picked up a bit of the language. When I say “the language,” I’m referring to Indonesian or, as it is known in Indonesian, Bahasa Indonesia (“language of Indonesia”). This statement is not as obvious as it may sound; Indonesia is home to hundreds of languages, and of these, Indonesian is not spoken as a first language by the majority of the population. But it is the lingua franca, so it’s useful for citizens and travelers alike. I found Indonesian to be very straightforward and easy to learn, free of most of the irregularities and annoyances of the Romance languages.

What I understood at the time was that Indonesian is, for the most part, the same language as Malay (Bahasa Melayu), the national language of neighboring Malaysia. I assumed that there were some differences, but that the main one was simply the name. I had no idea at that time of how either version of the language came into existence. It turns out that there’s a bit of a modern myth about the language’s origin—but the truth is even more interesting. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Linguistic Categories

Women, fire, and dangerous things

English is widely regarded as a complex language, full of unpredictable spellings, irregular verbs, and etymological inconsistencies. Many other languages are easier to learn (at least for adults) because they’re more consistent. For example, people who speak both French and English often regard French as the more elegant and coherent of the two languages. But some things about French have always puzzled me—such as gender. All French nouns have a gender attribute, and your choice of modifiers and adjective forms to go along with the nouns depends on whether the noun is masculine, feminine, or neuter. But there’s apparently no rhyme or reason for why a given noun has a given gender. Logically enough, the word for man is masculine and woman is feminine, yet masculinity is feminine and vagina is masculine! Likewise, I can see no reason for aphorism being masculine while platitude is feminine. If there’s a logic behind French gender categories, it’s not apparent to most non-native speakers.

Lots of languages assign gender to nouns, and speakers tend to regard these odd inconsistencies as “just one of those things”—something one must memorize when learning a language, without trying to read too much significance into it. But nearly all languages have some implicit method of grouping certain nouns into categories, and some of these category divisions, which go way beyond the two or three so-called genders, are extremely thought-provoking. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Pittsburghese

America’s most underappreciated dialect

The city in which I grew up is a suburb of Pittsburgh—in the southwest corner of Pennsylvania, less than an hour’s drive from both Ohio and West Virginia. Decades ago, the region’s economy was largely based on the production of steel. Pittsburgh was a busy, thriving, industrial city, and the residents—who sometimes refer to themselves as Pittsburghers—were by and large blue-collar working families. But the numerous coal-powered steel mills and factories were not kind to the environment. The air quality made today’s Los Angeles look crystal clear by comparison, and earned Pittsburgh the unfortunate nickname “The Smoky City.” When the mills and factories began closing due to the lower prices of imported steel, Pittsburgh’s air began to clear, and the ever-industrious populace reinvented the city as a center of technology, medicine, learning, and culture. Today’s Pittsburgh is a beautiful city, made all the more colorful by cultural and linguistic remnants of an earlier era’s working class.

Modern Pittsburghers may be many things, but they are not untidy. The city has entirely shed its reputation for dirt and disorder. That’s because whenever something is dirty, someone will immediately worsh it. And if the contents of a room are not neatly arranged, you must redd it up. By the time I was six or seven years old, I had worshed my face and hands and redd up my room hundreds of times. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Pastrami

Cure for the common deli

Sometimes the ideas for interesting topics come to me in rather roundabout ways. For instance, I was trying to come up with just one more topic that could somehow be construed as involving things that are stuffed. As usual, I asked my wife, Morgen, if she had any ideas. She made a few suggestions, none of which really grabbed me. Finally she said she was stumped and apparently gave up. A few minutes later, however, she handed me a book by Patricia Volk titled Stuffed: Adventures of a Restaurant Family. That was, of course, a very promising sign. Then she pointed out that the author’s family had run a restaurant in New York called Morgen’s—spelled the same way as my wife’s name. A lovely coincidence. (Morgen, it turns out, is the maiden name of the author’s mother—and also the name of a beagle that Volk and her sister once owned.) Flipping a few pages ahead, my wife showed me a picture of the author’s great-grandfather, Sussman Volk, whose claim to fame had been that he “brought pastrami to the New World.” Now we were getting somewhere.

All right, I understand that pastrami is not ordinarily stuffed or used to stuff anything else, but that’s not the point. The point is that I had never spent so much as five seconds thinking about pastrami before, but now that I knew there was at least one interesting story about it, I suddenly began to realize there were other questions to ponder too. Such as: What is pastrami, anyway? [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Piñatas

History of a breakthrough

I can’t remember when I first learned of the existence of piñatas, but it must have been at a very early age. Perhaps a kindergarten teacher was demonstrating papier-mâché and told us that people sometimes use it to make colorful candy jars that you can break open with a stick at a birthday party. There’s nothing about this concept that any kid wouldn’t appreciate. Candy: good. Party games: good. Wanton destruction of decorative objects with full parental consent: good. All in all, a great concept, and I always wondered why I didn’t get to have one at my birthday parties.

Then one day, I went to a friend’s birthday party and had my first and only hands-on experience with a piñata. In fact, “hands-on” is an exaggeration. Like each of the other children, I was blindfolded, spun around, and allowed three swings with a long stick in what I could only guess was the right direction. I didn’t break the piñata; I don’t think I even hit it—the adult who was tugging at the rope from which the piñata was suspended to “make the game more challenging” saw to that. Then it was the next kid’s turn, and he had essentially the same experience. Finally, the birthday boy had his turn, and in what can only be described as an incredible coincidence, he managed to beat the stuffing out of the thing. Did I then at least get my fair share of the spoils? I did not. Being the deferential type, I did not push and shove to gather up the candy, and by the time I got to it, all the good stuff was gone. By the end of the party I had completely revised my opinion of piñatas as being a really bad idea. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Modern Mummies

Resurrecting the art of arrested decay

We have all heard of people who had their bodies cryogenically preserved after death in the hope that some day, medical science will be able to bring them back to life and cure whatever illness caused their demise. That hope may be overly optimistic, but I can at least respect the logic behind the decision. Unlikely though it may be, I can’t say categorically that such a restoration is beyond the reach of some future science. With that single exception, however, I have never understood the ages-old practice of keeping dead bodies from decaying naturally. It’s not that I’m some soulless pragmatist, but I believe that death is the point at which a body becomes superfluous to its erstwhile owner—keeping it intact thereafter seems superstitious and creepy. Of course, that’s just my opinion. Some of my best friends are superstitious and creepy, and I don’t hold it against them.

Grave Concerns
Each culture has somewhat different beliefs about what should happen to a corpse. In North America, the majority of the deceased are embalmed so that they’ll look lifelike for a funeral several days later; they are then buried in airtight caskets inside concrete vaults or grave liners. Some people may derive comfort from the notion that a departed loved one is still somehow whole, but in ancient Egypt, much more was at stake than the feelings of the bereaved. During the centuries when the art of mummification was practiced, it was based on a deeply held belief that only if the tissues of one’s body were kept intact after death would the soul survive throughout eternity. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Demosthenes' Stones

Improving your diction, Athenian style

It’s a good thing I had never heard of Demosthenes when I was a child. I would have gotten in trouble. My mom would have said, “Don’t talk with your mouth full.” And I would have replied, “Don’t you want me to be a famous orator like Demosthenes? I’m training!” And then I would have been sent to my room without any more of whatever my mouth was full of. Kids, this is why grownups are always saying things like, “You’re too young to understand. Just take my word for it.” It’s for your own good. And if you get in trouble for talking with your mouth full, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Repeat After Me
Even as an adult, I get in trouble over Demosthenes. A while back, Morgen and I were watching “My Fair Lady” on TV. For those unfamiliar with the story, a linguistics professor in London named Henry Higgins makes a wager with a friend that he can rid a working-class girl, Eliza Doolittle, of her Cockney accent and teach her to speak like a proper lady. In one of his many drills, he insists that Eliza fill her mouth with marbles and then read a series of phrases. So of course I said, “Oh, just like Demosthenes.” Morgen gave me one of her patented looks that means “How do you expect me to know these obscure facts if I don’t read about them on Interesting Thing of the Day?” I was tempted to respond with a look that meant “Oh come on, everybody knows about Demosthenes,” but I opted instead for the path of marital concord. After all, one shouldn’t look a gift topic in the mouth. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The S Curve

What is wrong with success?

Guest Article by Rajagopal Sukumar

While the saying “success begets success” has almost become a cliché, there is no dearth of stories covering inexplicable failures of extremely successful people and corporations. Reading some of these stories and the books on this topic led me to the question: What if there is something fundamental that we are missing about success that leads to all these spectacular failures?

S Curve
My research brought me to the fascinating concept of the S Curve. Apparently, when you plot expertise with respect to time, it traces an S-shaped curve.

As depicted in the accompanying diagram, when we begin learning a skill, we are a bit slow initially at the tail of the S curve. As time progresses, learning proceeds at a dramatically increased speed, helping us to climb the steep slope of the S curve very quickly. At the top of the slope, we are deemed experts in that particular skill. From then on, even if we put a lot of effort into improving ourselves in that area, the resultant learning will not be proportional. The top end of the S curve is also called the slope of diminishing returns. At the top of the S curve, many people succumb to the effects of hubris, which gives them a false sense of security because the world believes and acknowledges that they are the experts in that field. Unfortunately, the world keeps moving and some other new skill becomes important, which renders this expert obsolete. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Perpetual Motion Machines

The endless quest for free energy

I distinctly remember learning the laws of thermodynamics in a science class—it must have been around eighth grade. After explaining these laws, the teacher added, “…and that is why perpetual motion machines are impossible.” So this fact has been firmly implanted in my brain for a very long time.

What I did not realize back then is that over the centuries, hundreds—if not thousands—of hopeful inventors have dedicated their lives to disproving these laws by building machines they believed would run indefinitely with no input of energy. Patent offices around the world became so inundated with designs for alleged perpetual motion machines that they now routinely dismiss such submissions without so much as a glance. But although every such design ever attempted has failed, the pace of research to find that subtle trick that results in perpetual motion has, if anything, accelerated. While doing some research on another topic, I stumbled upon a Web site listing an incredible number of current or recent projects. And sadly, many of these are not merely futile but fraudulent, as their developers convince investors to fork over large sums of money to pay for something that is just not possible. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Propeller Beanies

The story of the geek’s icon

When I write technical books and articles, I generally assume my audience is composed of ordinary people, not programmers or computer experts. I try to provide enough context and detail so that any reasonably intelligent person can get the gist of what I’m saying, even without prior experience in the topic I’m discussing. But in one of my ebooks, I described a certain procedure that, because it was somewhat complex, should only be attempted by those with a fair amount of computer know-how. The way I put it was this: “Unlike everything else in this book, this rather involved (and entirely optional) technique does require you to wear a propeller beanie…”

A few months later, I got an email from the man who was translating the book into German. His very reasonable question: “What is a propeller beanie?”

I found it surprisingly difficult to answer the question. I can describe what a propeller beanie looks like, but if the translator put the German equivalent for “child’s skullcap with a decorative plastic propeller” in the book, that would not be meaningful to the readers—they’d wonder, “Why must I wear a silly hat to be able to do such-and-such with my computer?” After explaining, as best I could, the cultural significance of the propeller beanie in America, I told the translator that it would be best just to say, “This technique requires you to be technically proficient.” I have no idea if there is any shorthand symbol in German that represents the same bundle of ideas that the propeller beanie does in English. But this exchange, besides bringing back memories of graduate linguistics courses in the problems of translation, made me wonder where the propeller beanie actually came from, and how it came to mean what it does today. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Hurdy-Gurdy

Violin, bagpipes, and kazoo combined

Guest Article by Jackie Chappell

In 1996, I bought an album I knew next to nothing about, by an artist I had never heard of before, on the strength of the album being issued on Peter Gabriel’s excellent Real World record label. The album was “Big City Secrets” by Joseph Arthur, and from the very first track I knew that I had made a good purchase. However, I really sat up and listened when I got to track 3, “Mikel K.” In the background of the song there was a really odd-sounding instrument. It sounded a bit like a violin (or a folk-style fiddle) played with a never-ending bow, and had a bagpipe-like drone note in the background. As if that wasn’t enough sonic complexity for one instrument, there was also a rhythmic buzzing sound, slightly reminiscent of a kazoo. What in the world was it? A quick check of the liner notes revealed only one instrument that I hadn’t heard of before—a hurdy-gurdy.

Don’t They Usually Come with a Monkey?
The first image that popped into my head was of a kind of barrel organ, where a handle is turned to drive bellows which force air through organ pipes, and which is also usually accompanied by some kind of simian assistant. I was so fascinated by the sound that I did some research, and found that my misconception was a common one. The hurdy-gurdy (or vielle à roue, as it is known in France) is played by turning a handle, but the resemblance to a barrel organ ends there. The body of the instrument can be box-shaped or with a rounded back like a lute, and many examples are beautifully decorated with inlaid wood. The handle turns a wheel covered in rosin, which vibrates the strings; the hurdy-gurdy functions like a violin with an endless bow, so that there is no pause in the sound at the end of a bow stroke. Instead of sounding notes using the fingers, the musician presses sliding, un-sprung keys which make contact with the strings and shorten them to make a sound of the required pitch. The drone comes from one or more strings which do not get pressed by the keys, and therefore sound the same notes continuously. The final part of the puzzle is the moveable bridge, or chien (French for dog), which supports one of the drone strings and can be manipulated by a skilled player so that it vibrates against the body of the hurdy-gurdy during playing, making a rhythmic buzzing noise. The whole ensemble has a driving, continuous sound, with its own percussion produced by the chien; it is impossible not to tap your feet along with the music. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Story of Doughnuts

The truth, the hole truth…

In the mid-1990s, I visited Las Vegas for the first time. I was there for an internet conference, and a friend of mine who had been there many times took it upon himself to show me all the standard tourist sites and make sure I got the complete Las Vegas experience. We walked down the Strip, taking in the obligatory pirate show, erupting volcano, and other spectacles. But there was one sight I had never heard of that was later to become a regular pilgrimage for me: the Krispy Kreme Doughnuts shop in the Excalibur hotel.

At that time, Krispy Kreme hadn’t expanded to become the phenomenon it is today. The only commercial doughnut shop chain I had ever known was Dunkin’ Donuts. But Krispy Kreme was definitely something special. For one thing, visitors could watch the doughnuts being made; a window ran along the side of the shop where the line formed. I was fascinated by the mechanism that flipped the doughnuts over in the oil when they were half-cooked, and watched in awe as they passed through a curtain of glaze. Although doughnuts are such a simple food, I felt I was watching something magical. Then I tasted one, and was even more impressed. I had never known what a fresh, hot doughnut was like—the difference from what I had experienced before is like that of fresh bread hot from the oven compared to week-old supermarket bread. It was light, soft, perfectly sweet—delicious. I couldn’t understand why Krispy Kreme hadn’t taken over the world yet; of course, it was only to be a matter of time. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Sedona's Energy Vortexes

The world’s most popular invisible tourist attraction

Allow me to get this disclaimer out of the way right up front: today’s interesting thing might not exist. But let’s be fair—I am not one to judge something by its ontological status alone. If it does exist, it’s very interesting indeed, and if it doesn’t, the widespread belief in its existence is equally interesting. I am referring to a natural phenomenon supposedly found in several places around Sedona, Arizona: something called an energy vortex.

The town of Sedona, about two hours’ drive north of Phoenix, is situated in an area of rare and stunning natural beauty. Towering rock formations and iron-rich reddish soil give the landscape an otherworldly appearance. This looks like what you imagined as the Old West, and countless films have been shot here. Kids will recognize it as the habitat of Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote. If you’re looking for a scenic vacation spot, Sedona is the place to go. It’s a favorite destination for romantic getaways, with a resort or a spa around every corner. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Globe Theatre

Shakespeare’s ideal venue, then and now

In my senior year of high school, all the students in my English class were required to write two term papers. But two of us were granted a special exception. The teacher gave my friend Nick and me the option of handing in alternative projects in lieu of the second paper. In my case, I had written a funny yet tragic account of an unhappy relationship—I use the term loosely—that I had experienced the previous summer. I was writing it just for fun, but my teacher found out about it and said I could type it up and turn it in as my second essay. I did—and got an A, too. Nick was the only student in class who was not required to type his term papers. As long as I’d known him—since kindergarten—he had said he wanted to be an architect. And he had developed an architect’s handwriting: every letter perfectly formed. The teacher’s offer to Nick was that he could build a scale model of the Globe Theatre out of Popsicle sticks instead of handing in a second paper. He declined, and I always thought that was a pity. We had learned about Shakespeare’s famous London venue in class, and I would have loved to see what it looked like. Besides, I couldn’t imagine that writing a term paper would have been more fun—but maybe that was just me.

I was thinking about this last year when I visited London for the first time. I had heard that the Globe Theatre, destroyed centuries ago, had recently been rebuilt, and I was eager to see it. I didn’t particularly care if I saw a play there; I just wanted to go inside and look around. When we got to the Globe, on the afternoon of our last day in London, they had just admitted the last tour group of the day; the only way left to see it that day was to buy tickets for a play. The box office informed us that the show was almost sold out. There were two options: we could buy either fabulously expensive tickets for seats behind a pole that would obscure our view, or cheap tickets for standing room. We debated which option we’d dislike the least, but by the time we had made up our minds two minutes later, all the remaining tickets for the day were gone. So all I got to see of the Globe Theatre was the outside, the gift shop, and the ticket office, none of which was especially impressive. (Note to self: plan ahead next time.) [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Walloon

Green Bay and the French connection

When I mentioned to Morgen that I was trying to come up with another good language-related topic to write about, she was silent for a moment, then proclaimed matter-of-factly, “Walloon.” This being a term I’d never heard of, I gave her my standard Scowl of Incomprehension, which she met with her deadly Blank Stare of Shame. This silent exchange is what we do when one of us is incredulous that the other could possibly lack some crucial piece of knowledge. Finally I broke down and said, “OK, what’s that?” Still expressionless, she said, “It’s a language spoken in Belgium.” Hmmmm. French I knew about, but not this one. Sounds really exciting. I said, “Is it interesting?” She said, “Maybe.” And that was that.

It turned out, as it always does, that she was right—it is interesting. But the very first interesting fact I learned about Walloon was one she wasn’t even aware of: Belgium is not the only place where native speakers of this language are found. The other is Green Bay, Wisconsin. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Bahasa Indonesia

The complex story of a simple language

During college I spent a summer in Indonesia, and naturally I picked up a bit of the language. When I say “the language,” I’m referring to Indonesian or, as it is known in Indonesian, Bahasa Indonesia (“language of Indonesia”). This statement is not as obvious as it may sound; Indonesia is home to hundreds of languages, and of these, Indonesian is not spoken as a first language by the majority of the population. But it is the lingua franca, so it’s useful for citizens and travelers alike. I found Indonesian to be very straightforward and easy to learn, free of most of the irregularities and annoyances of the Romance languages.

What I understood at the time was that Indonesian is, for the most part, the same language as Malay (Bahasa Melayu), the national language of neighboring Malaysia. I assumed that there were some differences, but that the main one was simply the name. I had no idea at that time of how either version of the language came into existence. It turns out that there’s a bit of a modern myth about the language’s origin—but the truth is even more interesting. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Linguistic Categories

Women, fire, and dangerous things

English is widely regarded as a complex language, full of unpredictable spellings, irregular verbs, and etymological inconsistencies. Many other languages are easier to learn (at least for adults) because they’re more consistent. For example, people who speak both French and English often regard French as the more elegant and coherent of the two languages. But some things about French have always puzzled me—such as gender. All French nouns have a gender attribute, and your choice of modifiers and adjective forms to go along with the nouns depends on whether the noun is masculine, feminine, or neuter. But there’s apparently no rhyme or reason for why a given noun has a given gender. Logically enough, the word for man is masculine and woman is feminine, yet masculinity is feminine and vagina is masculine! Likewise, I can see no reason for aphorism being masculine while platitude is feminine. If there’s a logic behind French gender categories, it’s not apparent to most non-native speakers.

Lots of languages assign gender to nouns, and speakers tend to regard these odd inconsistencies as “just one of those things”—something one must memorize when learning a language, without trying to read too much significance into it. But nearly all languages have some implicit method of grouping certain nouns into categories, and some of these category divisions, which go way beyond the two or three so-called genders, are extremely thought-provoking. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Pittsburghese

America’s most underappreciated dialect

The city in which I grew up is a suburb of Pittsburgh—in the southwest corner of Pennsylvania, less than an hour’s drive from both Ohio and West Virginia. Decades ago, the region’s economy was largely based on the production of steel. Pittsburgh was a busy, thriving, industrial city, and the residents—who sometimes refer to themselves as Pittsburghers—were by and large blue-collar working families. But the numerous coal-powered steel mills and factories were not kind to the environment. The air quality made today’s Los Angeles look crystal clear by comparison, and earned Pittsburgh the unfortunate nickname “The Smoky City.” When the mills and factories began closing due to the lower prices of imported steel, Pittsburgh’s air began to clear, and the ever-industrious populace reinvented the city as a center of technology, medicine, learning, and culture. Today’s Pittsburgh is a beautiful city, made all the more colorful by cultural and linguistic remnants of an earlier era’s working class.

Modern Pittsburghers may be many things, but they are not untidy. The city has entirely shed its reputation for dirt and disorder. That’s because whenever something is dirty, someone will immediately worsh it. And if the contents of a room are not neatly arranged, you must redd it up. By the time I was six or seven years old, I had worshed my face and hands and redd up my room hundreds of times. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Pastrami

Cure for the common deli

Sometimes the ideas for interesting topics come to me in rather roundabout ways. For instance, I was trying to come up with just one more topic that could somehow be construed as involving things that are stuffed. As usual, I asked my wife, Morgen, if she had any ideas. She made a few suggestions, none of which really grabbed me. Finally she said she was stumped and apparently gave up. A few minutes later, however, she handed me a book by Patricia Volk titled Stuffed: Adventures of a Restaurant Family. That was, of course, a very promising sign. Then she pointed out that the author’s family had run a restaurant in New York called Morgen’s—spelled the same way as my wife’s name. A lovely coincidence. (Morgen, it turns out, is the maiden name of the author’s mother—and also the name of a beagle that Volk and her sister once owned.) Flipping a few pages ahead, my wife showed me a picture of the author’s great-grandfather, Sussman Volk, whose claim to fame had been that he “brought pastrami to the New World.” Now we were getting somewhere.

All right, I understand that pastrami is not ordinarily stuffed or used to stuff anything else, but that’s not the point. The point is that I had never spent so much as five seconds thinking about pastrami before, but now that I knew there was at least one interesting story about it, I suddenly began to realize there were other questions to ponder too. Such as: What is pastrami, anyway? [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Piñatas

History of a breakthrough

I can’t remember when I first learned of the existence of piñatas, but it must have been at a very early age. Perhaps a kindergarten teacher was demonstrating papier-mâché and told us that people sometimes use it to make colorful candy jars that you can break open with a stick at a birthday party. There’s nothing about this concept that any kid wouldn’t appreciate. Candy: good. Party games: good. Wanton destruction of decorative objects with full parental consent: good. All in all, a great concept, and I always wondered why I didn’t get to have one at my birthday parties.

Then one day, I went to a friend’s birthday party and had my first and only hands-on experience with a piñata. In fact, “hands-on” is an exaggeration. Like each of the other children, I was blindfolded, spun around, and allowed three swings with a long stick in what I could only guess was the right direction. I didn’t break the piñata; I don’t think I even hit it—the adult who was tugging at the rope from which the piñata was suspended to “make the game more challenging” saw to that. Then it was the next kid’s turn, and he had essentially the same experience. Finally, the birthday boy had his turn, and in what can only be described as an incredible coincidence, he managed to beat the stuffing out of the thing. Did I then at least get my fair share of the spoils? I did not. Being the deferential type, I did not push and shove to gather up the candy, and by the time I got to it, all the good stuff was gone. By the end of the party I had completely revised my opinion of piñatas as being a really bad idea. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Modern Mummies

Resurrecting the art of arrested decay

We have all heard of people who had their bodies cryogenically preserved after death in the hope that some day, medical science will be able to bring them back to life and cure whatever illness caused their demise. That hope may be overly optimistic, but I can at least respect the logic behind the decision. Unlikely though it may be, I can’t say categorically that such a restoration is beyond the reach of some future science. With that single exception, however, I have never understood the ages-old practice of keeping dead bodies from decaying naturally. It’s not that I’m some soulless pragmatist, but I believe that death is the point at which a body becomes superfluous to its erstwhile owner—keeping it intact thereafter seems superstitious and creepy. Of course, that’s just my opinion. Some of my best friends are superstitious and creepy, and I don’t hold it against them.

Grave Concerns
Each culture has somewhat different beliefs about what should happen to a corpse. In North America, the majority of the deceased are embalmed so that they’ll look lifelike for a funeral several days later; they are then buried in airtight caskets inside concrete vaults or grave liners. Some people may derive comfort from the notion that a departed loved one is still somehow whole, but in ancient Egypt, much more was at stake than the feelings of the bereaved. During the centuries when the art of mummification was practiced, it was based on a deeply held belief that only if the tissues of one’s body were kept intact after death would the soul survive throughout eternity. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Demosthenes' Stones

Improving your diction, Athenian style

It’s a good thing I had never heard of Demosthenes when I was a child. I would have gotten in trouble. My mom would have said, “Don’t talk with your mouth full.” And I would have replied, “Don’t you want me to be a famous orator like Demosthenes? I’m training!” And then I would have been sent to my room without any more of whatever my mouth was full of. Kids, this is why grownups are always saying things like, “You’re too young to understand. Just take my word for it.” It’s for your own good. And if you get in trouble for talking with your mouth full, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Repeat After Me
Even as an adult, I get in trouble over Demosthenes. A while back, Morgen and I were watching “My Fair Lady” on TV. For those unfamiliar with the story, a linguistics professor in London named Henry Higgins makes a wager with a friend that he can rid a working-class girl, Eliza Doolittle, of her Cockney accent and teach her to speak like a proper lady. In one of his many drills, he insists that Eliza fill her mouth with marbles and then read a series of phrases. So of course I said, “Oh, just like Demosthenes.” Morgen gave me one of her patented looks that means “How do you expect me to know these obscure facts if I don’t read about them on Interesting Thing of the Day?” I was tempted to respond with a look that meant “Oh come on, everybody knows about Demosthenes,” but I opted instead for the path of marital concord. After all, one shouldn’t look a gift topic in the mouth. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The S Curve

What is wrong with success?

Guest Article by Rajagopal Sukumar

While the saying “success begets success” has almost become a cliché, there is no dearth of stories covering inexplicable failures of extremely successful people and corporations. Reading some of these stories and the books on this topic led me to the question: What if there is something fundamental that we are missing about success that leads to all these spectacular failures?

S Curve
My research brought me to the fascinating concept of the S Curve. Apparently, when you plot expertise with respect to time, it traces an S-shaped curve.

As depicted in the accompanying diagram, when we begin learning a skill, we are a bit slow initially at the tail of the S curve. As time progresses, learning proceeds at a dramatically increased speed, helping us to climb the steep slope of the S curve very quickly. At the top of the slope, we are deemed experts in that particular skill. From then on, even if we put a lot of effort into improving ourselves in that area, the resultant learning will not be proportional. The top end of the S curve is also called the slope of diminishing returns. At the top of the S curve, many people succumb to the effects of hubris, which gives them a false sense of security because the world believes and acknowledges that they are the experts in that field. Unfortunately, the world keeps moving and some other new skill becomes important, which renders this expert obsolete. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Perpetual Motion Machines

The endless quest for free energy

I distinctly remember learning the laws of thermodynamics in a science class—it must have been around eighth grade. After explaining these laws, the teacher added, “…and that is why perpetual motion machines are impossible.” So this fact has been firmly implanted in my brain for a very long time.

What I did not realize back then is that over the centuries, hundreds—if not thousands—of hopeful inventors have dedicated their lives to disproving these laws by building machines they believed would run indefinitely with no input of energy. Patent offices around the world became so inundated with designs for alleged perpetual motion machines that they now routinely dismiss such submissions without so much as a glance. But although every such design ever attempted has failed, the pace of research to find that subtle trick that results in perpetual motion has, if anything, accelerated. While doing some research on another topic, I stumbled upon a Web site listing an incredible number of current or recent projects. And sadly, many of these are not merely futile but fraudulent, as their developers convince investors to fork over large sums of money to pay for something that is just not possible. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Propeller Beanies

The story of the geek’s icon

When I write technical books and articles, I generally assume my audience is composed of ordinary people, not programmers or computer experts. I try to provide enough context and detail so that any reasonably intelligent person can get the gist of what I’m saying, even without prior experience in the topic I’m discussing. But in one of my ebooks, I described a certain procedure that, because it was somewhat complex, should only be attempted by those with a fair amount of computer know-how. The way I put it was this: “Unlike everything else in this book, this rather involved (and entirely optional) technique does require you to wear a propeller beanie…”

A few months later, I got an email from the man who was translating the book into German. His very reasonable question: “What is a propeller beanie?”

I found it surprisingly difficult to answer the question. I can describe what a propeller beanie looks like, but if the translator put the German equivalent for “child’s skullcap with a decorative plastic propeller” in the book, that would not be meaningful to the readers—they’d wonder, “Why must I wear a silly hat to be able to do such-and-such with my computer?” After explaining, as best I could, the cultural significance of the propeller beanie in America, I told the translator that it would be best just to say, “This technique requires you to be technically proficient.” I have no idea if there is any shorthand symbol in German that represents the same bundle of ideas that the propeller beanie does in English. But this exchange, besides bringing back memories of graduate linguistics courses in the problems of translation, made me wonder where the propeller beanie actually came from, and how it came to mean what it does today. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Hurdy-Gurdy

Violin, bagpipes, and kazoo combined

Guest Article by Jackie Chappell

In 1996, I bought an album I knew next to nothing about, by an artist I had never heard of before, on the strength of the album being issued on Peter Gabriel’s excellent Real World record label. The album was “Big City Secrets” by Joseph Arthur, and from the very first track I knew that I had made a good purchase. However, I really sat up and listened when I got to track 3, “Mikel K.” In the background of the song there was a really odd-sounding instrument. It sounded a bit like a violin (or a folk-style fiddle) played with a never-ending bow, and had a bagpipe-like drone note in the background. As if that wasn’t enough sonic complexity for one instrument, there was also a rhythmic buzzing sound, slightly reminiscent of a kazoo. What in the world was it? A quick check of the liner notes revealed only one instrument that I hadn’t heard of before—a hurdy-gurdy.

Don’t They Usually Come with a Monkey?
The first image that popped into my head was of a kind of barrel organ, where a handle is turned to drive bellows which force air through organ pipes, and which is also usually accompanied by some kind of simian assistant. I was so fascinated by the sound that I did some research, and found that my misconception was a common one. The hurdy-gurdy (or vielle à roue, as it is known in France) is played by turning a handle, but the resemblance to a barrel organ ends there. The body of the instrument can be box-shaped or with a rounded back like a lute, and many examples are beautifully decorated with inlaid wood. The handle turns a wheel covered in rosin, which vibrates the strings; the hurdy-gurdy functions like a violin with an endless bow, so that there is no pause in the sound at the end of a bow stroke. Instead of sounding notes using the fingers, the musician presses sliding, un-sprung keys which make contact with the strings and shorten them to make a sound of the required pitch. The drone comes from one or more strings which do not get pressed by the keys, and therefore sound the same notes continuously. The final part of the puzzle is the moveable bridge, or chien (French for dog), which supports one of the drone strings and can be manipulated by a skilled player so that it vibrates against the body of the hurdy-gurdy during playing, making a rhythmic buzzing noise. The whole ensemble has a driving, continuous sound, with its own percussion produced by the chien; it is impossible not to tap your feet along with the music. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Story of Doughnuts

The truth, the hole truth…

In the mid-1990s, I visited Las Vegas for the first time. I was there for an internet conference, and a friend of mine who had been there many times took it upon himself to show me all the standard tourist sites and make sure I got the complete Las Vegas experience. We walked down the Strip, taking in the obligatory pirate show, erupting volcano, and other spectacles. But there was one sight I had never heard of that was later to become a regular pilgrimage for me: the Krispy Kreme Doughnuts shop in the Excalibur hotel.

At that time, Krispy Kreme hadn’t expanded to become the phenomenon it is today. The only commercial doughnut shop chain I had ever known was Dunkin’ Donuts. But Krispy Kreme was definitely something special. For one thing, visitors could watch the doughnuts being made; a window ran along the side of the shop where the line formed. I was fascinated by the mechanism that flipped the doughnuts over in the oil when they were half-cooked, and watched in awe as they passed through a curtain of glaze. Although doughnuts are such a simple food, I felt I was watching something magical. Then I tasted one, and was even more impressed. I had never known what a fresh, hot doughnut was like—the difference from what I had experienced before is like that of fresh bread hot from the oven compared to week-old supermarket bread. It was light, soft, perfectly sweet—delicious. I couldn’t understand why Krispy Kreme hadn’t taken over the world yet; of course, it was only to be a matter of time. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Sedona's Energy Vortexes

The world’s most popular invisible tourist attraction

Allow me to get this disclaimer out of the way right up front: today’s interesting thing might not exist. But let’s be fair—I am not one to judge something by its ontological status alone. If it does exist, it’s very interesting indeed, and if it doesn’t, the widespread belief in its existence is equally interesting. I am referring to a natural phenomenon supposedly found in several places around Sedona, Arizona: something called an energy vortex.

The town of Sedona, about two hours’ drive north of Phoenix, is situated in an area of rare and stunning natural beauty. Towering rock formations and iron-rich reddish soil give the landscape an otherworldly appearance. This looks like what you imagined as the Old West, and countless films have been shot here. Kids will recognize it as the habitat of Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote. If you’re looking for a scenic vacation spot, Sedona is the place to go. It’s a favorite destination for romantic getaways, with a resort or a spa around every corner. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Globe Theatre

Shakespeare’s ideal venue, then and now

In my senior year of high school, all the students in my English class were required to write two term papers. But two of us were granted a special exception. The teacher gave my friend Nick and me the option of handing in alternative projects in lieu of the second paper. In my case, I had written a funny yet tragic account of an unhappy relationship—I use the term loosely—that I had experienced the previous summer. I was writing it just for fun, but my teacher found out about it and said I could type it up and turn it in as my second essay. I did—and got an A, too. Nick was the only student in class who was not required to type his term papers. As long as I’d known him—since kindergarten—he had said he wanted to be an architect. And he had developed an architect’s handwriting: every letter perfectly formed. The teacher’s offer to Nick was that he could build a scale model of the Globe Theatre out of Popsicle sticks instead of handing in a second paper. He declined, and I always thought that was a pity. We had learned about Shakespeare’s famous London venue in class, and I would have loved to see what it looked like. Besides, I couldn’t imagine that writing a term paper would have been more fun—but maybe that was just me.

I was thinking about this last year when I visited London for the first time. I had heard that the Globe Theatre, destroyed centuries ago, had recently been rebuilt, and I was eager to see it. I didn’t particularly care if I saw a play there; I just wanted to go inside and look around. When we got to the Globe, on the afternoon of our last day in London, they had just admitted the last tour group of the day; the only way left to see it that day was to buy tickets for a play. The box office informed us that the show was almost sold out. There were two options: we could buy either fabulously expensive tickets for seats behind a pole that would obscure our view, or cheap tickets for standing room. We debated which option we’d dislike the least, but by the time we had made up our minds two minutes later, all the remaining tickets for the day were gone. So all I got to see of the Globe Theatre was the outside, the gift shop, and the ticket office, none of which was especially impressive. (Note to self: plan ahead next time.) [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Walloon

Green Bay and the French connection

When I mentioned to Morgen that I was trying to come up with another good language-related topic to write about, she was silent for a moment, then proclaimed matter-of-factly, “Walloon.” This being a term I’d never heard of, I gave her my standard Scowl of Incomprehension, which she met with her deadly Blank Stare of Shame. This silent exchange is what we do when one of us is incredulous that the other could possibly lack some crucial piece of knowledge. Finally I broke down and said, “OK, what’s that?” Still expressionless, she said, “It’s a language spoken in Belgium.” Hmmmm. French I knew about, but not this one. Sounds really exciting. I said, “Is it interesting?” She said, “Maybe.” And that was that.

It turned out, as it always does, that she was right—it is interesting. But the very first interesting fact I learned about Walloon was one she wasn’t even aware of: Belgium is not the only place where native speakers of this language are found. The other is Green Bay, Wisconsin. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Bahasa Indonesia

The complex story of a simple language

During college I spent a summer in Indonesia, and naturally I picked up a bit of the language. When I say “the language,” I’m referring to Indonesian or, as it is known in Indonesian, Bahasa Indonesia (“language of Indonesia”). This statement is not as obvious as it may sound; Indonesia is home to hundreds of languages, and of these, Indonesian is not spoken as a first language by the majority of the population. But it is the lingua franca, so it’s useful for citizens and travelers alike. I found Indonesian to be very straightforward and easy to learn, free of most of the irregularities and annoyances of the Romance languages.

What I understood at the time was that Indonesian is, for the most part, the same language as Malay (Bahasa Melayu), the national language of neighboring Malaysia. I assumed that there were some differences, but that the main one was simply the name. I had no idea at that time of how either version of the language came into existence. It turns out that there’s a bit of a modern myth about the language’s origin—but the truth is even more interesting. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Linguistic Categories

Women, fire, and dangerous things

English is widely regarded as a complex language, full of unpredictable spellings, irregular verbs, and etymological inconsistencies. Many other languages are easier to learn (at least for adults) because they’re more consistent. For example, people who speak both French and English often regard French as the more elegant and coherent of the two languages. But some things about French have always puzzled me—such as gender. All French nouns have a gender attribute, and your choice of modifiers and adjective forms to go along with the nouns depends on whether the noun is masculine, feminine, or neuter. But there’s apparently no rhyme or reason for why a given noun has a given gender. Logically enough, the word for man is masculine and woman is feminine, yet masculinity is feminine and vagina is masculine! Likewise, I can see no reason for aphorism being masculine while platitude is feminine. If there’s a logic behind French gender categories, it’s not apparent to most non-native speakers.

Lots of languages assign gender to nouns, and speakers tend to regard these odd inconsistencies as “just one of those things”—something one must memorize when learning a language, without trying to read too much significance into it. But nearly all languages have some implicit method of grouping certain nouns into categories, and some of these category divisions, which go way beyond the two or three so-called genders, are extremely thought-provoking. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Pittsburghese

America’s most underappreciated dialect

The city in which I grew up is a suburb of Pittsburgh—in the southwest corner of Pennsylvania, less than an hour’s drive from both Ohio and West Virginia. Decades ago, the region’s economy was largely based on the production of steel. Pittsburgh was a busy, thriving, industrial city, and the residents—who sometimes refer to themselves as Pittsburghers—were by and large blue-collar working families. But the numerous coal-powered steel mills and factories were not kind to the environment. The air quality made today’s Los Angeles look crystal clear by comparison, and earned Pittsburgh the unfortunate nickname “The Smoky City.” When the mills and factories began closing due to the lower prices of imported steel, Pittsburgh’s air began to clear, and the ever-industrious populace reinvented the city as a center of technology, medicine, learning, and culture. Today’s Pittsburgh is a beautiful city, made all the more colorful by cultural and linguistic remnants of an earlier era’s working class.

Modern Pittsburghers may be many things, but they are not untidy. The city has entirely shed its reputation for dirt and disorder. That’s because whenever something is dirty, someone will immediately worsh it. And if the contents of a room are not neatly arranged, you must redd it up. By the time I was six or seven years old, I had worshed my face and hands and redd up my room hundreds of times. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Pastrami

Cure for the common deli

Sometimes the ideas for interesting topics come to me in rather roundabout ways. For instance, I was trying to come up with just one more topic that could somehow be construed as involving things that are stuffed. As usual, I asked my wife, Morgen, if she had any ideas. She made a few suggestions, none of which really grabbed me. Finally she said she was stumped and apparently gave up. A few minutes later, however, she handed me a book by Patricia Volk titled Stuffed: Adventures of a Restaurant Family. That was, of course, a very promising sign. Then she pointed out that the author’s family had run a restaurant in New York called Morgen’s—spelled the same way as my wife’s name. A lovely coincidence. (Morgen, it turns out, is the maiden name of the author’s mother—and also the name of a beagle that Volk and her sister once owned.) Flipping a few pages ahead, my wife showed me a picture of the author’s great-grandfather, Sussman Volk, whose claim to fame had been that he “brought pastrami to the New World.” Now we were getting somewhere.

All right, I understand that pastrami is not ordinarily stuffed or used to stuff anything else, but that’s not the point. The point is that I had never spent so much as five seconds thinking about pastrami before, but now that I knew there was at least one interesting story about it, I suddenly began to realize there were other questions to ponder too. Such as: What is pastrami, anyway? [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Piñatas

History of a breakthrough

I can’t remember when I first learned of the existence of piñatas, but it must have been at a very early age. Perhaps a kindergarten teacher was demonstrating papier-mâché and told us that people sometimes use it to make colorful candy jars that you can break open with a stick at a birthday party. There’s nothing about this concept that any kid wouldn’t appreciate. Candy: good. Party games: good. Wanton destruction of decorative objects with full parental consent: good. All in all, a great concept, and I always wondered why I didn’t get to have one at my birthday parties.

Then one day, I went to a friend’s birthday party and had my first and only hands-on experience with a piñata. In fact, “hands-on” is an exaggeration. Like each of the other children, I was blindfolded, spun around, and allowed three swings with a long stick in what I could only guess was the right direction. I didn’t break the piñata; I don’t think I even hit it—the adult who was tugging at the rope from which the piñata was suspended to “make the game more challenging” saw to that. Then it was the next kid’s turn, and he had essentially the same experience. Finally, the birthday boy had his turn, and in what can only be described as an incredible coincidence, he managed to beat the stuffing out of the thing. Did I then at least get my fair share of the spoils? I did not. Being the deferential type, I did not push and shove to gather up the candy, and by the time I got to it, all the good stuff was gone. By the end of the party I had completely revised my opinion of piñatas as being a really bad idea. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Modern Mummies

Resurrecting the art of arrested decay

We have all heard of people who had their bodies cryogenically preserved after death in the hope that some day, medical science will be able to bring them back to life and cure whatever illness caused their demise. That hope may be overly optimistic, but I can at least respect the logic behind the decision. Unlikely though it may be, I can’t say categorically that such a restoration is beyond the reach of some future science. With that single exception, however, I have never understood the ages-old practice of keeping dead bodies from decaying naturally. It’s not that I’m some soulless pragmatist, but I believe that death is the point at which a body becomes superfluous to its erstwhile owner—keeping it intact thereafter seems superstitious and creepy. Of course, that’s just my opinion. Some of my best friends are superstitious and creepy, and I don’t hold it against them.

Grave Concerns
Each culture has somewhat different beliefs about what should happen to a corpse. In North America, the majority of the deceased are embalmed so that they’ll look lifelike for a funeral several days later; they are then buried in airtight caskets inside concrete vaults or grave liners. Some people may derive comfort from the notion that a departed loved one is still somehow whole, but in ancient Egypt, much more was at stake than the feelings of the bereaved. During the centuries when the art of mummification was practiced, it was based on a deeply held belief that only if the tissues of one’s body were kept intact after death would the soul survive throughout eternity. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Demosthenes' Stones

Improving your diction, Athenian style

It’s a good thing I had never heard of Demosthenes when I was a child. I would have gotten in trouble. My mom would have said, “Don’t talk with your mouth full.” And I would have replied, “Don’t you want me to be a famous orator like Demosthenes? I’m training!” And then I would have been sent to my room without any more of whatever my mouth was full of. Kids, this is why grownups are always saying things like, “You’re too young to understand. Just take my word for it.” It’s for your own good. And if you get in trouble for talking with your mouth full, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Repeat After Me
Even as an adult, I get in trouble over Demosthenes. A while back, Morgen and I were watching “My Fair Lady” on TV. For those unfamiliar with the story, a linguistics professor in London named Henry Higgins makes a wager with a friend that he can rid a working-class girl, Eliza Doolittle, of her Cockney accent and teach her to speak like a proper lady. In one of his many drills, he insists that Eliza fill her mouth with marbles and then read a series of phrases. So of course I said, “Oh, just like Demosthenes.” Morgen gave me one of her patented looks that means “How do you expect me to know these obscure facts if I don’t read about them on Interesting Thing of the Day?” I was tempted to respond with a look that meant “Oh come on, everybody knows about Demosthenes,” but I opted instead for the path of marital concord. After all, one shouldn’t look a gift topic in the mouth. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The S Curve

What is wrong with success?

Guest Article by Rajagopal Sukumar

While the saying “success begets success” has almost become a cliché, there is no dearth of stories covering inexplicable failures of extremely successful people and corporations. Reading some of these stories and the books on this topic led me to the question: What if there is something fundamental that we are missing about success that leads to all these spectacular failures?

S Curve
My research brought me to the fascinating concept of the S Curve. Apparently, when you plot expertise with respect to time, it traces an S-shaped curve.

As depicted in the accompanying diagram, when we begin learning a skill, we are a bit slow initially at the tail of the S curve. As time progresses, learning proceeds at a dramatically increased speed, helping us to climb the steep slope of the S curve very quickly. At the top of the slope, we are deemed experts in that particular skill. From then on, even if we put a lot of effort into improving ourselves in that area, the resultant learning will not be proportional. The top end of the S curve is also called the slope of diminishing returns. At the top of the S curve, many people succumb to the effects of hubris, which gives them a false sense of security because the world believes and acknowledges that they are the experts in that field. Unfortunately, the world keeps moving and some other new skill becomes important, which renders this expert obsolete. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Perpetual Motion Machines

The endless quest for free energy

I distinctly remember learning the laws of thermodynamics in a science class—it must have been around eighth grade. After explaining these laws, the teacher added, “…and that is why perpetual motion machines are impossible.” So this fact has been firmly implanted in my brain for a very long time.

What I did not realize back then is that over the centuries, hundreds—if not thousands—of hopeful inventors have dedicated their lives to disproving these laws by building machines they believed would run indefinitely with no input of energy. Patent offices around the world became so inundated with designs for alleged perpetual motion machines that they now routinely dismiss such submissions without so much as a glance. But although every such design ever attempted has failed, the pace of research to find that subtle trick that results in perpetual motion has, if anything, accelerated. While doing some research on another topic, I stumbled upon a Web site listing an incredible number of current or recent projects. And sadly, many of these are not merely futile but fraudulent, as their developers convince investors to fork over large sums of money to pay for something that is just not possible. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Propeller Beanies

The story of the geek’s icon

When I write technical books and articles, I generally assume my audience is composed of ordinary people, not programmers or computer experts. I try to provide enough context and detail so that any reasonably intelligent person can get the gist of what I’m saying, even without prior experience in the topic I’m discussing. But in one of my ebooks, I described a certain procedure that, because it was somewhat complex, should only be attempted by those with a fair amount of computer know-how. The way I put it was this: “Unlike everything else in this book, this rather involved (and entirely optional) technique does require you to wear a propeller beanie…”

A few months later, I got an email from the man who was translating the book into German. His very reasonable question: “What is a propeller beanie?”

I found it surprisingly difficult to answer the question. I can describe what a propeller beanie looks like, but if the translator put the German equivalent for “child’s skullcap with a decorative plastic propeller” in the book, that would not be meaningful to the readers—they’d wonder, “Why must I wear a silly hat to be able to do such-and-such with my computer?” After explaining, as best I could, the cultural significance of the propeller beanie in America, I told the translator that it would be best just to say, “This technique requires you to be technically proficient.” I have no idea if there is any shorthand symbol in German that represents the same bundle of ideas that the propeller beanie does in English. But this exchange, besides bringing back memories of graduate linguistics courses in the problems of translation, made me wonder where the propeller beanie actually came from, and how it came to mean what it does today. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Hurdy-Gurdy

Violin, bagpipes, and kazoo combined

Guest Article by Jackie Chappell

In 1996, I bought an album I knew next to nothing about, by an artist I had never heard of before, on the strength of the album being issued on Peter Gabriel’s excellent Real World record label. The album was “Big City Secrets” by Joseph Arthur, and from the very first track I knew that I had made a good purchase. However, I really sat up and listened when I got to track 3, “Mikel K.” In the background of the song there was a really odd-sounding instrument. It sounded a bit like a violin (or a folk-style fiddle) played with a never-ending bow, and had a bagpipe-like drone note in the background. As if that wasn’t enough sonic complexity for one instrument, there was also a rhythmic buzzing sound, slightly reminiscent of a kazoo. What in the world was it? A quick check of the liner notes revealed only one instrument that I hadn’t heard of before—a hurdy-gurdy.

Don’t They Usually Come with a Monkey?
The first image that popped into my head was of a kind of barrel organ, where a handle is turned to drive bellows which force air through organ pipes, and which is also usually accompanied by some kind of simian assistant. I was so fascinated by the sound that I did some research, and found that my misconception was a common one. The hurdy-gurdy (or vielle à roue, as it is known in France) is played by turning a handle, but the resemblance to a barrel organ ends there. The body of the instrument can be box-shaped or with a rounded back like a lute, and many examples are beautifully decorated with inlaid wood. The handle turns a wheel covered in rosin, which vibrates the strings; the hurdy-gurdy functions like a violin with an endless bow, so that there is no pause in the sound at the end of a bow stroke. Instead of sounding notes using the fingers, the musician presses sliding, un-sprung keys which make contact with the strings and shorten them to make a sound of the required pitch. The drone comes from one or more strings which do not get pressed by the keys, and therefore sound the same notes continuously. The final part of the puzzle is the moveable bridge, or chien (French for dog), which supports one of the drone strings and can be manipulated by a skilled player so that it vibrates against the body of the hurdy-gurdy during playing, making a rhythmic buzzing noise. The whole ensemble has a driving, continuous sound, with its own percussion produced by the chien; it is impossible not to tap your feet along with the music. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Story of Doughnuts

The truth, the hole truth…

In the mid-1990s, I visited Las Vegas for the first time. I was there for an internet conference, and a friend of mine who had been there many times took it upon himself to show me all the standard tourist sites and make sure I got the complete Las Vegas experience. We walked down the Strip, taking in the obligatory pirate show, erupting volcano, and other spectacles. But there was one sight I had never heard of that was later to become a regular pilgrimage for me: the Krispy Kreme Doughnuts shop in the Excalibur hotel.

At that time, Krispy Kreme hadn’t expanded to become the phenomenon it is today. The only commercial doughnut shop chain I had ever known was Dunkin’ Donuts. But Krispy Kreme was definitely something special. For one thing, visitors could watch the doughnuts being made; a window ran along the side of the shop where the line formed. I was fascinated by the mechanism that flipped the doughnuts over in the oil when they were half-cooked, and watched in awe as they passed through a curtain of glaze. Although doughnuts are such a simple food, I felt I was watching something magical. Then I tasted one, and was even more impressed. I had never known what a fresh, hot doughnut was like—the difference from what I had experienced before is like that of fresh bread hot from the oven compared to week-old supermarket bread. It was light, soft, perfectly sweet—delicious. I couldn’t understand why Krispy Kreme hadn’t taken over the world yet; of course, it was only to be a matter of time. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Sedona's Energy Vortexes

The world’s most popular invisible tourist attraction

Allow me to get this disclaimer out of the way right up front: today’s interesting thing might not exist. But let’s be fair—I am not one to judge something by its ontological status alone. If it does exist, it’s very interesting indeed, and if it doesn’t, the widespread belief in its existence is equally interesting. I am referring to a natural phenomenon supposedly found in several places around Sedona, Arizona: something called an energy vortex.

The town of Sedona, about two hours’ drive north of Phoenix, is situated in an area of rare and stunning natural beauty. Towering rock formations and iron-rich reddish soil give the landscape an otherworldly appearance. This looks like what you imagined as the Old West, and countless films have been shot here. Kids will recognize it as the habitat of Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote. If you’re looking for a scenic vacation spot, Sedona is the place to go. It’s a favorite destination for romantic getaways, with a resort or a spa around every corner. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Globe Theatre

Shakespeare’s ideal venue, then and now

In my senior year of high school, all the students in my English class were required to write two term papers. But two of us were granted a special exception. The teacher gave my friend Nick and me the option of handing in alternative projects in lieu of the second paper. In my case, I had written a funny yet tragic account of an unhappy relationship—I use the term loosely—that I had experienced the previous summer. I was writing it just for fun, but my teacher found out about it and said I could type it up and turn it in as my second essay. I did—and got an A, too. Nick was the only student in class who was not required to type his term papers. As long as I’d known him—since kindergarten—he had said he wanted to be an architect. And he had developed an architect’s handwriting: every letter perfectly formed. The teacher’s offer to Nick was that he could build a scale model of the Globe Theatre out of Popsicle sticks instead of handing in a second paper. He declined, and I always thought that was a pity. We had learned about Shakespeare’s famous London venue in class, and I would have loved to see what it looked like. Besides, I couldn’t imagine that writing a term paper would have been more fun—but maybe that was just me.

I was thinking about this last year when I visited London for the first time. I had heard that the Globe Theatre, destroyed centuries ago, had recently been rebuilt, and I was eager to see it. I didn’t particularly care if I saw a play there; I just wanted to go inside and look around. When we got to the Globe, on the afternoon of our last day in London, they had just admitted the last tour group of the day; the only way left to see it that day was to buy tickets for a play. The box office informed us that the show was almost sold out. There were two options: we could buy either fabulously expensive tickets for seats behind a pole that would obscure our view, or cheap tickets for standing room. We debated which option we’d dislike the least, but by the time we had made up our minds two minutes later, all the remaining tickets for the day were gone. So all I got to see of the Globe Theatre was the outside, the gift shop, and the ticket office, none of which was especially impressive. (Note to self: plan ahead next time.) [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Walloon

Green Bay and the French connection

When I mentioned to Morgen that I was trying to come up with another good language-related topic to write about, she was silent for a moment, then proclaimed matter-of-factly, “Walloon.” This being a term I’d never heard of, I gave her my standard Scowl of Incomprehension, which she met with her deadly Blank Stare of Shame. This silent exchange is what we do when one of us is incredulous that the other could possibly lack some crucial piece of knowledge. Finally I broke down and said, “OK, what’s that?” Still expressionless, she said, “It’s a language spoken in Belgium.” Hmmmm. French I knew about, but not this one. Sounds really exciting. I said, “Is it interesting?” She said, “Maybe.” And that was that.

It turned out, as it always does, that she was right—it is interesting. But the very first interesting fact I learned about Walloon was one she wasn’t even aware of: Belgium is not the only place where native speakers of this language are found. The other is Green Bay, Wisconsin. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Bahasa Indonesia

The complex story of a simple language

During college I spent a summer in Indonesia, and naturally I picked up a bit of the language. When I say “the language,” I’m referring to Indonesian or, as it is known in Indonesian, Bahasa Indonesia (“language of Indonesia”). This statement is not as obvious as it may sound; Indonesia is home to hundreds of languages, and of these, Indonesian is not spoken as a first language by the majority of the population. But it is the lingua franca, so it’s useful for citizens and travelers alike. I found Indonesian to be very straightforward and easy to learn, free of most of the irregularities and annoyances of the Romance languages.

What I understood at the time was that Indonesian is, for the most part, the same language as Malay (Bahasa Melayu), the national language of neighboring Malaysia. I assumed that there were some differences, but that the main one was simply the name. I had no idea at that time of how either version of the language came into existence. It turns out that there’s a bit of a modern myth about the language’s origin—but the truth is even more interesting. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Linguistic Categories

Women, fire, and dangerous things

English is widely regarded as a complex language, full of unpredictable spellings, irregular verbs, and etymological inconsistencies. Many other languages are easier to learn (at least for adults) because they’re more consistent. For example, people who speak both French and English often regard French as the more elegant and coherent of the two languages. But some things about French have always puzzled me—such as gender. All French nouns have a gender attribute, and your choice of modifiers and adjective forms to go along with the nouns depends on whether the noun is masculine, feminine, or neuter. But there’s apparently no rhyme or reason for why a given noun has a given gender. Logically enough, the word for man is masculine and woman is feminine, yet masculinity is feminine and vagina is masculine! Likewise, I can see no reason for aphorism being masculine while platitude is feminine. If there’s a logic behind French gender categories, it’s not apparent to most non-native speakers.

Lots of languages assign gender to nouns, and speakers tend to regard these odd inconsistencies as “just one of those things”—something one must memorize when learning a language, without trying to read too much significance into it. But nearly all languages have some implicit method of grouping certain nouns into categories, and some of these category divisions, which go way beyond the two or three so-called genders, are extremely thought-provoking. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Pittsburghese

America’s most underappreciated dialect

The city in which I grew up is a suburb of Pittsburgh—in the southwest corner of Pennsylvania, less than an hour’s drive from both Ohio and West Virginia. Decades ago, the region’s economy was largely based on the production of steel. Pittsburgh was a busy, thriving, industrial city, and the residents—who sometimes refer to themselves as Pittsburghers—were by and large blue-collar working families. But the numerous coal-powered steel mills and factories were not kind to the environment. The air quality made today’s Los Angeles look crystal clear by comparison, and earned Pittsburgh the unfortunate nickname “The Smoky City.” When the mills and factories began closing due to the lower prices of imported steel, Pittsburgh’s air began to clear, and the ever-industrious populace reinvented the city as a center of technology, medicine, learning, and culture. Today’s Pittsburgh is a beautiful city, made all the more colorful by cultural and linguistic remnants of an earlier era’s working class.

Modern Pittsburghers may be many things, but they are not untidy. The city has entirely shed its reputation for dirt and disorder. That’s because whenever something is dirty, someone will immediately worsh it. And if the contents of a room are not neatly arranged, you must redd it up. By the time I was six or seven years old, I had worshed my face and hands and redd up my room hundreds of times. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Pastrami

Cure for the common deli

Sometimes the ideas for interesting topics come to me in rather roundabout ways. For instance, I was trying to come up with just one more topic that could somehow be construed as involving things that are stuffed. As usual, I asked my wife, Morgen, if she had any ideas. She made a few suggestions, none of which really grabbed me. Finally she said she was stumped and apparently gave up. A few minutes later, however, she handed me a book by Patricia Volk titled Stuffed: Adventures of a Restaurant Family. That was, of course, a very promising sign. Then she pointed out that the author’s family had run a restaurant in New York called Morgen’s—spelled the same way as my wife’s name. A lovely coincidence. (Morgen, it turns out, is the maiden name of the author’s mother—and also the name of a beagle that Volk and her sister once owned.) Flipping a few pages ahead, my wife showed me a picture of the author’s great-grandfather, Sussman Volk, whose claim to fame had been that he “brought pastrami to the New World.” Now we were getting somewhere.

All right, I understand that pastrami is not ordinarily stuffed or used to stuff anything else, but that’s not the point. The point is that I had never spent so much as five seconds thinking about pastrami before, but now that I knew there was at least one interesting story about it, I suddenly began to realize there were other questions to ponder too. Such as: What is pastrami, anyway? [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Piñatas

History of a breakthrough

I can’t remember when I first learned of the existence of piñatas, but it must have been at a very early age. Perhaps a kindergarten teacher was demonstrating papier-mâché and told us that people sometimes use it to make colorful candy jars that you can break open with a stick at a birthday party. There’s nothing about this concept that any kid wouldn’t appreciate. Candy: good. Party games: good. Wanton destruction of decorative objects with full parental consent: good. All in all, a great concept, and I always wondered why I didn’t get to have one at my birthday parties.

Then one day, I went to a friend’s birthday party and had my first and only hands-on experience with a piñata. In fact, “hands-on” is an exaggeration. Like each of the other children, I was blindfolded, spun around, and allowed three swings with a long stick in what I could only guess was the right direction. I didn’t break the piñata; I don’t think I even hit it—the adult who was tugging at the rope from which the piñata was suspended to “make the game more challenging” saw to that. Then it was the next kid’s turn, and he had essentially the same experience. Finally, the birthday boy had his turn, and in what can only be described as an incredible coincidence, he managed to beat the stuffing out of the thing. Did I then at least get my fair share of the spoils? I did not. Being the deferential type, I did not push and shove to gather up the candy, and by the time I got to it, all the good stuff was gone. By the end of the party I had completely revised my opinion of piñatas as being a really bad idea. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Modern Mummies

Resurrecting the art of arrested decay

We have all heard of people who had their bodies cryogenically preserved after death in the hope that some day, medical science will be able to bring them back to life and cure whatever illness caused their demise. That hope may be overly optimistic, but I can at least respect the logic behind the decision. Unlikely though it may be, I can’t say categorically that such a restoration is beyond the reach of some future science. With that single exception, however, I have never understood the ages-old practice of keeping dead bodies from decaying naturally. It’s not that I’m some soulless pragmatist, but I believe that death is the point at which a body becomes superfluous to its erstwhile owner—keeping it intact thereafter seems superstitious and creepy. Of course, that’s just my opinion. Some of my best friends are superstitious and creepy, and I don’t hold it against them.

Grave Concerns
Each culture has somewhat different beliefs about what should happen to a corpse. In North America, the majority of the deceased are embalmed so that they’ll look lifelike for a funeral several days later; they are then buried in airtight caskets inside concrete vaults or grave liners. Some people may derive comfort from the notion that a departed loved one is still somehow whole, but in ancient Egypt, much more was at stake than the feelings of the bereaved. During the centuries when the art of mummification was practiced, it was based on a deeply held belief that only if the tissues of one’s body were kept intact after death would the soul survive throughout eternity. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Demosthenes' Stones

Improving your diction, Athenian style

It’s a good thing I had never heard of Demosthenes when I was a child. I would have gotten in trouble. My mom would have said, “Don’t talk with your mouth full.” And I would have replied, “Don’t you want me to be a famous orator like Demosthenes? I’m training!” And then I would have been sent to my room without any more of whatever my mouth was full of. Kids, this is why grownups are always saying things like, “You’re too young to understand. Just take my word for it.” It’s for your own good. And if you get in trouble for talking with your mouth full, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Repeat After Me
Even as an adult, I get in trouble over Demosthenes. A while back, Morgen and I were watching “My Fair Lady” on TV. For those unfamiliar with the story, a linguistics professor in London named Henry Higgins makes a wager with a friend that he can rid a working-class girl, Eliza Doolittle, of her Cockney accent and teach her to speak like a proper lady. In one of his many drills, he insists that Eliza fill her mouth with marbles and then read a series of phrases. So of course I said, “Oh, just like Demosthenes.” Morgen gave me one of her patented looks that means “How do you expect me to know these obscure facts if I don’t read about them on Interesting Thing of the Day?” I was tempted to respond with a look that meant “Oh come on, everybody knows about Demosthenes,” but I opted instead for the path of marital concord. After all, one shouldn’t look a gift topic in the mouth. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The S Curve

What is wrong with success?

Guest Article by Rajagopal Sukumar

While the saying “success begets success” has almost become a cliché, there is no dearth of stories covering inexplicable failures of extremely successful people and corporations. Reading some of these stories and the books on this topic led me to the question: What if there is something fundamental that we are missing about success that leads to all these spectacular failures?

S Curve
My research brought me to the fascinating concept of the S Curve. Apparently, when you plot expertise with respect to time, it traces an S-shaped curve.

As depicted in the accompanying diagram, when we begin learning a skill, we are a bit slow initially at the tail of the S curve. As time progresses, learning proceeds at a dramatically increased speed, helping us to climb the steep slope of the S curve very quickly. At the top of the slope, we are deemed experts in that particular skill. From then on, even if we put a lot of effort into improving ourselves in that area, the resultant learning will not be proportional. The top end of the S curve is also called the slope of diminishing returns. At the top of the S curve, many people succumb to the effects of hubris, which gives them a false sense of security because the world believes and acknowledges that they are the experts in that field. Unfortunately, the world keeps moving and some other new skill becomes important, which renders this expert obsolete. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Perpetual Motion Machines

The endless quest for free energy

I distinctly remember learning the laws of thermodynamics in a science class—it must have been around eighth grade. After explaining these laws, the teacher added, “…and that is why perpetual motion machines are impossible.” So this fact has been firmly implanted in my brain for a very long time.

What I did not realize back then is that over the centuries, hundreds—if not thousands—of hopeful inventors have dedicated their lives to disproving these laws by building machines they believed would run indefinitely with no input of energy. Patent offices around the world became so inundated with designs for alleged perpetual motion machines that they now routinely dismiss such submissions without so much as a glance. But although every such design ever attempted has failed, the pace of research to find that subtle trick that results in perpetual motion has, if anything, accelerated. While doing some research on another topic, I stumbled upon a Web site listing an incredible number of current or recent projects. And sadly, many of these are not merely futile but fraudulent, as their developers convince investors to fork over large sums of money to pay for something that is just not possible. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Propeller Beanies

The story of the geek’s icon

When I write technical books and articles, I generally assume my audience is composed of ordinary people, not programmers or computer experts. I try to provide enough context and detail so that any reasonably intelligent person can get the gist of what I’m saying, even without prior experience in the topic I’m discussing. But in one of my ebooks, I described a certain procedure that, because it was somewhat complex, should only be attempted by those with a fair amount of computer know-how. The way I put it was this: “Unlike everything else in this book, this rather involved (and entirely optional) technique does require you to wear a propeller beanie…”

A few months later, I got an email from the man who was translating the book into German. His very reasonable question: “What is a propeller beanie?”

I found it surprisingly difficult to answer the question. I can describe what a propeller beanie looks like, but if the translator put the German equivalent for “child’s skullcap with a decorative plastic propeller” in the book, that would not be meaningful to the readers—they’d wonder, “Why must I wear a silly hat to be able to do such-and-such with my computer?” After explaining, as best I could, the cultural significance of the propeller beanie in America, I told the translator that it would be best just to say, “This technique requires you to be technically proficient.” I have no idea if there is any shorthand symbol in German that represents the same bundle of ideas that the propeller beanie does in English. But this exchange, besides bringing back memories of graduate linguistics courses in the problems of translation, made me wonder where the propeller beanie actually came from, and how it came to mean what it does today. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Hurdy-Gurdy

Violin, bagpipes, and kazoo combined

Guest Article by Jackie Chappell

In 1996, I bought an album I knew next to nothing about, by an artist I had never heard of before, on the strength of the album being issued on Peter Gabriel’s excellent Real World record label. The album was “Big City Secrets” by Joseph Arthur, and from the very first track I knew that I had made a good purchase. However, I really sat up and listened when I got to track 3, “Mikel K.” In the background of the song there was a really odd-sounding instrument. It sounded a bit like a violin (or a folk-style fiddle) played with a never-ending bow, and had a bagpipe-like drone note in the background. As if that wasn’t enough sonic complexity for one instrument, there was also a rhythmic buzzing sound, slightly reminiscent of a kazoo. What in the world was it? A quick check of the liner notes revealed only one instrument that I hadn’t heard of before—a hurdy-gurdy.

Don’t They Usually Come with a Monkey?
The first image that popped into my head was of a kind of barrel organ, where a handle is turned to drive bellows which force air through organ pipes, and which is also usually accompanied by some kind of simian assistant. I was so fascinated by the sound that I did some research, and found that my misconception was a common one. The hurdy-gurdy (or vielle à roue, as it is known in France) is played by turning a handle, but the resemblance to a barrel organ ends there. The body of the instrument can be box-shaped or with a rounded back like a lute, and many examples are beautifully decorated with inlaid wood. The handle turns a wheel covered in rosin, which vibrates the strings; the hurdy-gurdy functions like a violin with an endless bow, so that there is no pause in the sound at the end of a bow stroke. Instead of sounding notes using the fingers, the musician presses sliding, un-sprung keys which make contact with the strings and shorten them to make a sound of the required pitch. The drone comes from one or more strings which do not get pressed by the keys, and therefore sound the same notes continuously. The final part of the puzzle is the moveable bridge, or chien (French for dog), which supports one of the drone strings and can be manipulated by a skilled player so that it vibrates against the body of the hurdy-gurdy during playing, making a rhythmic buzzing noise. The whole ensemble has a driving, continuous sound, with its own percussion produced by the chien; it is impossible not to tap your feet along with the music. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Story of Doughnuts

The truth, the hole truth…

In the mid-1990s, I visited Las Vegas for the first time. I was there for an internet conference, and a friend of mine who had been there many times took it upon himself to show me all the standard tourist sites and make sure I got the complete Las Vegas experience. We walked down the Strip, taking in the obligatory pirate show, erupting volcano, and other spectacles. But there was one sight I had never heard of that was later to become a regular pilgrimage for me: the Krispy Kreme Doughnuts shop in the Excalibur hotel.

At that time, Krispy Kreme hadn’t expanded to become the phenomenon it is today. The only commercial doughnut shop chain I had ever known was Dunkin’ Donuts. But Krispy Kreme was definitely something special. For one thing, visitors could watch the doughnuts being made; a window ran along the side of the shop where the line formed. I was fascinated by the mechanism that flipped the doughnuts over in the oil when they were half-cooked, and watched in awe as they passed through a curtain of glaze. Although doughnuts are such a simple food, I felt I was watching something magical. Then I tasted one, and was even more impressed. I had never known what a fresh, hot doughnut was like—the difference from what I had experienced before is like that of fresh bread hot from the oven compared to week-old supermarket bread. It was light, soft, perfectly sweet—delicious. I couldn’t understand why Krispy Kreme hadn’t taken over the world yet; of course, it was only to be a matter of time. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Sedona's Energy Vortexes

The world’s most popular invisible tourist attraction

Allow me to get this disclaimer out of the way right up front: today’s interesting thing might not exist. But let’s be fair—I am not one to judge something by its ontological status alone. If it does exist, it’s very interesting indeed, and if it doesn’t, the widespread belief in its existence is equally interesting. I am referring to a natural phenomenon supposedly found in several places around Sedona, Arizona: something called an energy vortex.

The town of Sedona, about two hours’ drive north of Phoenix, is situated in an area of rare and stunning natural beauty. Towering rock formations and iron-rich reddish soil give the landscape an otherworldly appearance. This looks like what you imagined as the Old West, and countless films have been shot here. Kids will recognize it as the habitat of Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote. If you’re looking for a scenic vacation spot, Sedona is the place to go. It’s a favorite destination for romantic getaways, with a resort or a spa around every corner. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Globe Theatre

Shakespeare’s ideal venue, then and now

In my senior year of high school, all the students in my English class were required to write two term papers. But two of us were granted a special exception. The teacher gave my friend Nick and me the option of handing in alternative projects in lieu of the second paper. In my case, I had written a funny yet tragic account of an unhappy relationship—I use the term loosely—that I had experienced the previous summer. I was writing it just for fun, but my teacher found out about it and said I could type it up and turn it in as my second essay. I did—and got an A, too. Nick was the only student in class who was not required to type his term papers. As long as I’d known him—since kindergarten—he had said he wanted to be an architect. And he had developed an architect’s handwriting: every letter perfectly formed. The teacher’s offer to Nick was that he could build a scale model of the Globe Theatre out of Popsicle sticks instead of handing in a second paper. He declined, and I always thought that was a pity. We had learned about Shakespeare’s famous London venue in class, and I would have loved to see what it looked like. Besides, I couldn’t imagine that writing a term paper would have been more fun—but maybe that was just me.

I was thinking about this last year when I visited London for the first time. I had heard that the Globe Theatre, destroyed centuries ago, had recently been rebuilt, and I was eager to see it. I didn’t particularly care if I saw a play there; I just wanted to go inside and look around. When we got to the Globe, on the afternoon of our last day in London, they had just admitted the last tour group of the day; the only way left to see it that day was to buy tickets for a play. The box office informed us that the show was almost sold out. There were two options: we could buy either fabulously expensive tickets for seats behind a pole that would obscure our view, or cheap tickets for standing room. We debated which option we’d dislike the least, but by the time we had made up our minds two minutes later, all the remaining tickets for the day were gone. So all I got to see of the Globe Theatre was the outside, the gift shop, and the ticket office, none of which was especially impressive. (Note to self: plan ahead next time.) [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Walloon

Green Bay and the French connection

When I mentioned to Morgen that I was trying to come up with another good language-related topic to write about, she was silent for a moment, then proclaimed matter-of-factly, “Walloon.” This being a term I’d never heard of, I gave her my standard Scowl of Incomprehension, which she met with her deadly Blank Stare of Shame. This silent exchange is what we do when one of us is incredulous that the other could possibly lack some crucial piece of knowledge. Finally I broke down and said, “OK, what’s that?” Still expressionless, she said, “It’s a language spoken in Belgium.” Hmmmm. French I knew about, but not this one. Sounds really exciting. I said, “Is it interesting?” She said, “Maybe.” And that was that.

It turned out, as it always does, that she was right—it is interesting. But the very first interesting fact I learned about Walloon was one she wasn’t even aware of: Belgium is not the only place where native speakers of this language are found. The other is Green Bay, Wisconsin. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Bahasa Indonesia

The complex story of a simple language

During college I spent a summer in Indonesia, and naturally I picked up a bit of the language. When I say “the language,” I’m referring to Indonesian or, as it is known in Indonesian, Bahasa Indonesia (“language of Indonesia”). This statement is not as obvious as it may sound; Indonesia is home to hundreds of languages, and of these, Indonesian is not spoken as a first language by the majority of the population. But it is the lingua franca, so it’s useful for citizens and travelers alike. I found Indonesian to be very straightforward and easy to learn, free of most of the irregularities and annoyances of the Romance languages.

What I understood at the time was that Indonesian is, for the most part, the same language as Malay (Bahasa Melayu), the national language of neighboring Malaysia. I assumed that there were some differences, but that the main one was simply the name. I had no idea at that time of how either version of the language came into existence. It turns out that there’s a bit of a modern myth about the language’s origin—but the truth is even more interesting. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Linguistic Categories

Women, fire, and dangerous things

English is widely regarded as a complex language, full of unpredictable spellings, irregular verbs, and etymological inconsistencies. Many other languages are easier to learn (at least for adults) because they’re more consistent. For example, people who speak both French and English often regard French as the more elegant and coherent of the two languages. But some things about French have always puzzled me—such as gender. All French nouns have a gender attribute, and your choice of modifiers and adjective forms to go along with the nouns depends on whether the noun is masculine, feminine, or neuter. But there’s apparently no rhyme or reason for why a given noun has a given gender. Logically enough, the word for man is masculine and woman is feminine, yet masculinity is feminine and vagina is masculine! Likewise, I can see no reason for aphorism being masculine while platitude is feminine. If there’s a logic behind French gender categories, it’s not apparent to most non-native speakers.

Lots of languages assign gender to nouns, and speakers tend to regard these odd inconsistencies as “just one of those things”—something one must memorize when learning a language, without trying to read too much significance into it. But nearly all languages have some implicit method of grouping certain nouns into categories, and some of these category divisions, which go way beyond the two or three so-called genders, are extremely thought-provoking. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Pittsburghese

America’s most underappreciated dialect

The city in which I grew up is a suburb of Pittsburgh—in the southwest corner of Pennsylvania, less than an hour’s drive from both Ohio and West Virginia. Decades ago, the region’s economy was largely based on the production of steel. Pittsburgh was a busy, thriving, industrial city, and the residents—who sometimes refer to themselves as Pittsburghers—were by and large blue-collar working families. But the numerous coal-powered steel mills and factories were not kind to the environment. The air quality made today’s Los Angeles look crystal clear by comparison, and earned Pittsburgh the unfortunate nickname “The Smoky City.” When the mills and factories began closing due to the lower prices of imported steel, Pittsburgh’s air began to clear, and the ever-industrious populace reinvented the city as a center of technology, medicine, learning, and culture. Today’s Pittsburgh is a beautiful city, made all the more colorful by cultural and linguistic remnants of an earlier era’s working class.

Modern Pittsburghers may be many things, but they are not untidy. The city has entirely shed its reputation for dirt and disorder. That’s because whenever something is dirty, someone will immediately worsh it. And if the contents of a room are not neatly arranged, you must redd it up. By the time I was six or seven years old, I had worshed my face and hands and redd up my room hundreds of times. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Pastrami

Cure for the common deli

Sometimes the ideas for interesting topics come to me in rather roundabout ways. For instance, I was trying to come up with just one more topic that could somehow be construed as involving things that are stuffed. As usual, I asked my wife, Morgen, if she had any ideas. She made a few suggestions, none of which really grabbed me. Finally she said she was stumped and apparently gave up. A few minutes later, however, she handed me a book by Patricia Volk titled Stuffed: Adventures of a Restaurant Family. That was, of course, a very promising sign. Then she pointed out that the author’s family had run a restaurant in New York called Morgen’s—spelled the same way as my wife’s name. A lovely coincidence. (Morgen, it turns out, is the maiden name of the author’s mother—and also the name of a beagle that Volk and her sister once owned.) Flipping a few pages ahead, my wife showed me a picture of the author’s great-grandfather, Sussman Volk, whose claim to fame had been that he “brought pastrami to the New World.” Now we were getting somewhere.

All right, I understand that pastrami is not ordinarily stuffed or used to stuff anything else, but that’s not the point. The point is that I had never spent so much as five seconds thinking about pastrami before, but now that I knew there was at least one interesting story about it, I suddenly began to realize there were other questions to ponder too. Such as: What is pastrami, anyway? [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Piñatas

History of a breakthrough

I can’t remember when I first learned of the existence of piñatas, but it must have been at a very early age. Perhaps a kindergarten teacher was demonstrating papier-mâché and told us that people sometimes use it to make colorful candy jars that you can break open with a stick at a birthday party. There’s nothing about this concept that any kid wouldn’t appreciate. Candy: good. Party games: good. Wanton destruction of decorative objects with full parental consent: good. All in all, a great concept, and I always wondered why I didn’t get to have one at my birthday parties.

Then one day, I went to a friend’s birthday party and had my first and only hands-on experience with a piñata. In fact, “hands-on” is an exaggeration. Like each of the other children, I was blindfolded, spun around, and allowed three swings with a long stick in what I could only guess was the right direction. I didn’t break the piñata; I don’t think I even hit it—the adult who was tugging at the rope from which the piñata was suspended to “make the game more challenging” saw to that. Then it was the next kid’s turn, and he had essentially the same experience. Finally, the birthday boy had his turn, and in what can only be described as an incredible coincidence, he managed to beat the stuffing out of the thing. Did I then at least get my fair share of the spoils? I did not. Being the deferential type, I did not push and shove to gather up the candy, and by the time I got to it, all the good stuff was gone. By the end of the party I had completely revised my opinion of piñatas as being a really bad idea. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Modern Mummies

Resurrecting the art of arrested decay

We have all heard of people who had their bodies cryogenically preserved after death in the hope that some day, medical science will be able to bring them back to life and cure whatever illness caused their demise. That hope may be overly optimistic, but I can at least respect the logic behind the decision. Unlikely though it may be, I can’t say categorically that such a restoration is beyond the reach of some future science. With that single exception, however, I have never understood the ages-old practice of keeping dead bodies from decaying naturally. It’s not that I’m some soulless pragmatist, but I believe that death is the point at which a body becomes superfluous to its erstwhile owner—keeping it intact thereafter seems superstitious and creepy. Of course, that’s just my opinion. Some of my best friends are superstitious and creepy, and I don’t hold it against them.

Grave Concerns
Each culture has somewhat different beliefs about what should happen to a corpse. In North America, the majority of the deceased are embalmed so that they’ll look lifelike for a funeral several days later; they are then buried in airtight caskets inside concrete vaults or grave liners. Some people may derive comfort from the notion that a departed loved one is still somehow whole, but in ancient Egypt, much more was at stake than the feelings of the bereaved. During the centuries when the art of mummification was practiced, it was based on a deeply held belief that only if the tissues of one’s body were kept intact after death would the soul survive throughout eternity. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Demosthenes' Stones

Improving your diction, Athenian style

It’s a good thing I had never heard of Demosthenes when I was a child. I would have gotten in trouble. My mom would have said, “Don’t talk with your mouth full.” And I would have replied, “Don’t you want me to be a famous orator like Demosthenes? I’m training!” And then I would have been sent to my room without any more of whatever my mouth was full of. Kids, this is why grownups are always saying things like, “You’re too young to understand. Just take my word for it.” It’s for your own good. And if you get in trouble for talking with your mouth full, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Repeat After Me
Even as an adult, I get in trouble over Demosthenes. A while back, Morgen and I were watching “My Fair Lady” on TV. For those unfamiliar with the story, a linguistics professor in London named Henry Higgins makes a wager with a friend that he can rid a working-class girl, Eliza Doolittle, of her Cockney accent and teach her to speak like a proper lady. In one of his many drills, he insists that Eliza fill her mouth with marbles and then read a series of phrases. So of course I said, “Oh, just like Demosthenes.” Morgen gave me one of her patented looks that means “How do you expect me to know these obscure facts if I don’t read about them on Interesting Thing of the Day?” I was tempted to respond with a look that meant “Oh come on, everybody knows about Demosthenes,” but I opted instead for the path of marital concord. After all, one shouldn’t look a gift topic in the mouth. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The S Curve

What is wrong with success?

Guest Article by Rajagopal Sukumar

While the saying “success begets success” has almost become a cliché, there is no dearth of stories covering inexplicable failures of extremely successful people and corporations. Reading some of these stories and the books on this topic led me to the question: What if there is something fundamental that we are missing about success that leads to all these spectacular failures?

S Curve
My research brought me to the fascinating concept of the S Curve. Apparently, when you plot expertise with respect to time, it traces an S-shaped curve.

As depicted in the accompanying diagram, when we begin learning a skill, we are a bit slow initially at the tail of the S curve. As time progresses, learning proceeds at a dramatically increased speed, helping us to climb the steep slope of the S curve very quickly. At the top of the slope, we are deemed experts in that particular skill. From then on, even if we put a lot of effort into improving ourselves in that area, the resultant learning will not be proportional. The top end of the S curve is also called the slope of diminishing returns. At the top of the S curve, many people succumb to the effects of hubris, which gives them a false sense of security because the world believes and acknowledges that they are the experts in that field. Unfortunately, the world keeps moving and some other new skill becomes important, which renders this expert obsolete. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Perpetual Motion Machines

The endless quest for free energy

I distinctly remember learning the laws of thermodynamics in a science class—it must have been around eighth grade. After explaining these laws, the teacher added, “…and that is why perpetual motion machines are impossible.” So this fact has been firmly implanted in my brain for a very long time.

What I did not realize back then is that over the centuries, hundreds—if not thousands—of hopeful inventors have dedicated their lives to disproving these laws by building machines they believed would run indefinitely with no input of energy. Patent offices around the world became so inundated with designs for alleged perpetual motion machines that they now routinely dismiss such submissions without so much as a glance. But although every such design ever attempted has failed, the pace of research to find that subtle trick that results in perpetual motion has, if anything, accelerated. While doing some research on another topic, I stumbled upon a Web site listing an incredible number of current or recent projects. And sadly, many of these are not merely futile but fraudulent, as their developers convince investors to fork over large sums of money to pay for something that is just not possible. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Propeller Beanies

The story of the geek’s icon

When I write technical books and articles, I generally assume my audience is composed of ordinary people, not programmers or computer experts. I try to provide enough context and detail so that any reasonably intelligent person can get the gist of what I’m saying, even without prior experience in the topic I’m discussing. But in one of my ebooks, I described a certain procedure that, because it was somewhat complex, should only be attempted by those with a fair amount of computer know-how. The way I put it was this: “Unlike everything else in this book, this rather involved (and entirely optional) technique does require you to wear a propeller beanie…”

A few months later, I got an email from the man who was translating the book into German. His very reasonable question: “What is a propeller beanie?”

I found it surprisingly difficult to answer the question. I can describe what a propeller beanie looks like, but if the translator put the German equivalent for “child’s skullcap with a decorative plastic propeller” in the book, that would not be meaningful to the readers—they’d wonder, “Why must I wear a silly hat to be able to do such-and-such with my computer?” After explaining, as best I could, the cultural significance of the propeller beanie in America, I told the translator that it would be best just to say, “This technique requires you to be technically proficient.” I have no idea if there is any shorthand symbol in German that represents the same bundle of ideas that the propeller beanie does in English. But this exchange, besides bringing back memories of graduate linguistics courses in the problems of translation, made me wonder where the propeller beanie actually came from, and how it came to mean what it does today. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Hurdy-Gurdy

Violin, bagpipes, and kazoo combined

Guest Article by Jackie Chappell

In 1996, I bought an album I knew next to nothing about, by an artist I had never heard of before, on the strength of the album being issued on Peter Gabriel’s excellent Real World record label. The album was “Big City Secrets” by Joseph Arthur, and from the very first track I knew that I had made a good purchase. However, I really sat up and listened when I got to track 3, “Mikel K.” In the background of the song there was a really odd-sounding instrument. It sounded a bit like a violin (or a folk-style fiddle) played with a never-ending bow, and had a bagpipe-like drone note in the background. As if that wasn’t enough sonic complexity for one instrument, there was also a rhythmic buzzing sound, slightly reminiscent of a kazoo. What in the world was it? A quick check of the liner notes revealed only one instrument that I hadn’t heard of before—a hurdy-gurdy.

Don’t They Usually Come with a Monkey?
The first image that popped into my head was of a kind of barrel organ, where a handle is turned to drive bellows which force air through organ pipes, and which is also usually accompanied by some kind of simian assistant. I was so fascinated by the sound that I did some research, and found that my misconception was a common one. The hurdy-gurdy (or vielle à roue, as it is known in France) is played by turning a handle, but the resemblance to a barrel organ ends there. The body of the instrument can be box-shaped or with a rounded back like a lute, and many examples are beautifully decorated with inlaid wood. The handle turns a wheel covered in rosin, which vibrates the strings; the hurdy-gurdy functions like a violin with an endless bow, so that there is no pause in the sound at the end of a bow stroke. Instead of sounding notes using the fingers, the musician presses sliding, un-sprung keys which make contact with the strings and shorten them to make a sound of the required pitch. The drone comes from one or more strings which do not get pressed by the keys, and therefore sound the same notes continuously. The final part of the puzzle is the moveable bridge, or chien (French for dog), which supports one of the drone strings and can be manipulated by a skilled player so that it vibrates against the body of the hurdy-gurdy during playing, making a rhythmic buzzing noise. The whole ensemble has a driving, continuous sound, with its own percussion produced by the chien; it is impossible not to tap your feet along with the music. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Story of Doughnuts

The truth, the hole truth…

In the mid-1990s, I visited Las Vegas for the first time. I was there for an internet conference, and a friend of mine who had been there many times took it upon himself to show me all the standard tourist sites and make sure I got the complete Las Vegas experience. We walked down the Strip, taking in the obligatory pirate show, erupting volcano, and other spectacles. But there was one sight I had never heard of that was later to become a regular pilgrimage for me: the Krispy Kreme Doughnuts shop in the Excalibur hotel.

At that time, Krispy Kreme hadn’t expanded to become the phenomenon it is today. The only commercial doughnut shop chain I had ever known was Dunkin’ Donuts. But Krispy Kreme was definitely something special. For one thing, visitors could watch the doughnuts being made; a window ran along the side of the shop where the line formed. I was fascinated by the mechanism that flipped the doughnuts over in the oil when they were half-cooked, and watched in awe as they passed through a curtain of glaze. Although doughnuts are such a simple food, I felt I was watching something magical. Then I tasted one, and was even more impressed. I had never known what a fresh, hot doughnut was like—the difference from what I had experienced before is like that of fresh bread hot from the oven compared to week-old supermarket bread. It was light, soft, perfectly sweet—delicious. I couldn’t understand why Krispy Kreme hadn’t taken over the world yet; of course, it was only to be a matter of time. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Sedona's Energy Vortexes

The world’s most popular invisible tourist attraction

Allow me to get this disclaimer out of the way right up front: today’s interesting thing might not exist. But let’s be fair—I am not one to judge something by its ontological status alone. If it does exist, it’s very interesting indeed, and if it doesn’t, the widespread belief in its existence is equally interesting. I am referring to a natural phenomenon supposedly found in several places around Sedona, Arizona: something called an energy vortex.

The town of Sedona, about two hours’ drive north of Phoenix, is situated in an area of rare and stunning natural beauty. Towering rock formations and iron-rich reddish soil give the landscape an otherworldly appearance. This looks like what you imagined as the Old West, and countless films have been shot here. Kids will recognize it as the habitat of Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote. If you’re looking for a scenic vacation spot, Sedona is the place to go. It’s a favorite destination for romantic getaways, with a resort or a spa around every corner. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Globe Theatre

Shakespeare’s ideal venue, then and now

In my senior year of high school, all the students in my English class were required to write two term papers. But two of us were granted a special exception. The teacher gave my friend Nick and me the option of handing in alternative projects in lieu of the second paper. In my case, I had written a funny yet tragic account of an unhappy relationship—I use the term loosely—that I had experienced the previous summer. I was writing it just for fun, but my teacher found out about it and said I could type it up and turn it in as my second essay. I did—and got an A, too. Nick was the only student in class who was not required to type his term papers. As long as I’d known him—since kindergarten—he had said he wanted to be an architect. And he had developed an architect’s handwriting: every letter perfectly formed. The teacher’s offer to Nick was that he could build a scale model of the Globe Theatre out of Popsicle sticks instead of handing in a second paper. He declined, and I always thought that was a pity. We had learned about Shakespeare’s famous London venue in class, and I would have loved to see what it looked like. Besides, I couldn’t imagine that writing a term paper would have been more fun—but maybe that was just me.

I was thinking about this last year when I visited London for the first time. I had heard that the Globe Theatre, destroyed centuries ago, had recently been rebuilt, and I was eager to see it. I didn’t particularly care if I saw a play there; I just wanted to go inside and look around. When we got to the Globe, on the afternoon of our last day in London, they had just admitted the last tour group of the day; the only way left to see it that day was to buy tickets for a play. The box office informed us that the show was almost sold out. There were two options: we could buy either fabulously expensive tickets for seats behind a pole that would obscure our view, or cheap tickets for standing room. We debated which option we’d dislike the least, but by the time we had made up our minds two minutes later, all the remaining tickets for the day were gone. So all I got to see of the Globe Theatre was the outside, the gift shop, and the ticket office, none of which was especially impressive. (Note to self: plan ahead next time.) [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Walloon

Green Bay and the French connection

When I mentioned to Morgen that I was trying to come up with another good language-related topic to write about, she was silent for a moment, then proclaimed matter-of-factly, “Walloon.” This being a term I’d never heard of, I gave her my standard Scowl of Incomprehension, which she met with her deadly Blank Stare of Shame. This silent exchange is what we do when one of us is incredulous that the other could possibly lack some crucial piece of knowledge. Finally I broke down and said, “OK, what’s that?” Still expressionless, she said, “It’s a language spoken in Belgium.” Hmmmm. French I knew about, but not this one. Sounds really exciting. I said, “Is it interesting?” She said, “Maybe.” And that was that.

It turned out, as it always does, that she was right—it is interesting. But the very first interesting fact I learned about Walloon was one she wasn’t even aware of: Belgium is not the only place where native speakers of this language are found. The other is Green Bay, Wisconsin. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Bahasa Indonesia

The complex story of a simple language

During college I spent a summer in Indonesia, and naturally I picked up a bit of the language. When I say “the language,” I’m referring to Indonesian or, as it is known in Indonesian, Bahasa Indonesia (“language of Indonesia”). This statement is not as obvious as it may sound; Indonesia is home to hundreds of languages, and of these, Indonesian is not spoken as a first language by the majority of the population. But it is the lingua franca, so it’s useful for citizens and travelers alike. I found Indonesian to be very straightforward and easy to learn, free of most of the irregularities and annoyances of the Romance languages.

What I understood at the time was that Indonesian is, for the most part, the same language as Malay (Bahasa Melayu), the national language of neighboring Malaysia. I assumed that there were some differences, but that the main one was simply the name. I had no idea at that time of how either version of the language came into existence. It turns out that there’s a bit of a modern myth about the language’s origin—but the truth is even more interesting. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Linguistic Categories

Women, fire, and dangerous things

English is widely regarded as a complex language, full of unpredictable spellings, irregular verbs, and etymological inconsistencies. Many other languages are easier to learn (at least for adults) because they’re more consistent. For example, people who speak both French and English often regard French as the more elegant and coherent of the two languages. But some things about French have always puzzled me—such as gender. All French nouns have a gender attribute, and your choice of modifiers and adjective forms to go along with the nouns depends on whether the noun is masculine, feminine, or neuter. But there’s apparently no rhyme or reason for why a given noun has a given gender. Logically enough, the word for man is masculine and woman is feminine, yet masculinity is feminine and vagina is masculine! Likewise, I can see no reason for aphorism being masculine while platitude is feminine. If there’s a logic behind French gender categories, it’s not apparent to most non-native speakers.

Lots of languages assign gender to nouns, and speakers tend to regard these odd inconsistencies as “just one of those things”—something one must memorize when learning a language, without trying to read too much significance into it. But nearly all languages have some implicit method of grouping certain nouns into categories, and some of these category divisions, which go way beyond the two or three so-called genders, are extremely thought-provoking. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Pittsburghese

America’s most underappreciated dialect

The city in which I grew up is a suburb of Pittsburgh—in the southwest corner of Pennsylvania, less than an hour’s drive from both Ohio and West Virginia. Decades ago, the region’s economy was largely based on the production of steel. Pittsburgh was a busy, thriving, industrial city, and the residents—who sometimes refer to themselves as Pittsburghers—were by and large blue-collar working families. But the numerous coal-powered steel mills and factories were not kind to the environment. The air quality made today’s Los Angeles look crystal clear by comparison, and earned Pittsburgh the unfortunate nickname “The Smoky City.” When the mills and factories began closing due to the lower prices of imported steel, Pittsburgh’s air began to clear, and the ever-industrious populace reinvented the city as a center of technology, medicine, learning, and culture. Today’s Pittsburgh is a beautiful city, made all the more colorful by cultural and linguistic remnants of an earlier era’s working class.

Modern Pittsburghers may be many things, but they are not untidy. The city has entirely shed its reputation for dirt and disorder. That’s because whenever something is dirty, someone will immediately worsh it. And if the contents of a room are not neatly arranged, you must redd it up. By the time I was six or seven years old, I had worshed my face and hands and redd up my room hundreds of times. [Article Continues…]

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