From the archives…

Saturna Island

Less is more (interesting)

I have a special fondness for contradiction—or more accurately, contrariety—the apparent not-going-together of things I like or believe equally. Read enough of these articles and the theme of paradox will be quite evident. For example, I love living in the city, and can’t imagine being without the energy, resources, and constant stimulation it provides. But I could say with equal conviction that I’m happiest when I’m far away from people, noise, and chaos, immersed in the solitude of nature. As a result, when planning a vacation, I’m never quite sure whether I want to “get away from it all” or experience the novelty and adventure of another urban area. Las Vegas, New York, and Paris are among my favorite places to visit; on the other hand, I also enjoy a meditative retreat, a long weekend in the desert, or a lazy trip through the countryside of Provence. But my very favorite place to go for peace and quiet is Saturna Island.

Just Across the Strait
Perhaps I should begin with a quick geography lesson. British Columbia is Canada’s westernmost province. Its largest city, Vancouver (where I lived for three years), is on the Pacific coast, just a few hours’ drive north of Seattle. Not far off the coast—about an hour and a half by ferry—is Vancouver Island, an immense piece of land with an area about the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined. On Vancouver Island you’ll find Victoria, the capital city of British Columbia, and about three-quarters of a million people. The stretch of ocean between the mainland and Vancouver Island is known as the Georgia Strait, and scattered along the 300-mile (483km) length of the strait are hundreds of smaller islands, only a handful of which are inhabited. The Gulf Islands, as they are called, have all the natural beauty typical of the Pacific Northwest, and a much more relaxed pace of life than the big cities. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Curling

Throwing stones for fun and profit

With apologies and all due respect to my Canadian friends and relatives, I have never had the remotest interest in hockey. I’ve tried to watch it a few times, but always found it tedious and hard to follow. Even though the pace of the game is often frantic, there is typically a lot of time between goals, during which I can rarely tell where the puck actually is. Where confrontations between players seem to be the most exciting part of the game for many fans, I don’t enjoy watching people knock each other around. There is, however, another popular Canadian sport that involves sliding objects around on ice: curling. Unlike hockey, curling moves at a fairly slow pace and doesn’t require protective gear.

Stones Without Sticks
When I first heard a description of curling, it sounded too weird and dull to attract my interest. But the first time I saw curling on TV, I had a revelation. “Oh,” I thought, “it’s just like boules on ice.” There is a class of games, including lawn bowling, bocce, boules, shuffleboard, and (in some cases) marbles, that all have the same basic idea in common. Taking turns, competitors launch (throw, roll, or slide) a projectile (ball or puck) toward a target. After several rounds, the player or team with the projectile closest to the target wins; a large part of the strategy is displacing your opponent’s projectiles while protecting your own. I don’t have a name for this general type of game, but once I realized curling fit into this familiar category, I warmed to it considerably. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Temperate Rain Forests

Trees of life

If you ask the average person to name any three countries that have rain forests, chances are their minds will jump to tropical regions—Central and South America, equatorial Africa, or the islands of southeast Asia. Most people would not include, say, Canada on their lists, because as everyone knows, rain forests are consistently hot places. And this is exactly what I always believed too. Several years ago when I was living in Canada, my wife, Morgen, mentioned in passing, “Oh, we’ve got rain forests here.” And I thought: “Yeah, right. And deserts too. What else did Santa Claus tell you?” But it seems Mr. Kringle was right after all. Canada does indeed have rain forests—just not of the tropical variety, which was the only kind I had ever heard of. (As a matter of fact, there are also deserts in Canada…but that’s a story for another day.)

Moisten and Seal
The main thing that determines whether a forest should be considered a rain forest is the amount of rainfall it receives—generally, the threshold is about 100 inches (2.5m) per year. This high moisture content—concentrated still further into fog by the leaves that form the canopy—encourages the heavy growth of plants, which in turn support animal life. When evergreen forests appear along the coast of a landmass with mountains on the other side, the mountains tend to trap the moist air blowing in from the sea, producing an unusually heavy rainfall in the forest. Voilà: rain forest. Such conditions exist in several parts of the world, including the west coast of North America (from Alaska as far south as northern California), the west coast of Chile, parts of Tasmania and New Zealand, and even a small patch of Norway. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Vienna Vegetable Orchestra

Grooves from the garden

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

The 20th-century American composer John Cage was well known for his experimental approach to making music. His most famous composition, titled 4’33” (four minutes and 33 seconds), playfully widens the boundaries of what is considered music. The piece consists of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of structured silence (although it was written to be performed for any length of time), during which time listeners are drawn to discover the ambient sounds going on all around them.

This idea that music can be found in unlikely circumstances has resonated in the works of other composers who followed Cage. In a similar, but unique vein, a group known as the Vienna Vegetable Orchestra, or more simply the Vegetable Orchestra, creates music from an unlikely source: fresh vegetables. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Capilano Suspension Bridge

Vancouver from another point of view

Every time I mention to someone that I spent three years living in Vancouver, British Columbia, I get the same response. “Oh, I’ve heard Vancouver is such a beautiful city. I’d love to visit there some time.” Dozens of people have said the same thing to me, almost as if reciting a line from an advertising campaign. And it’s true: Vancouver is a beautiful city—whether you’re talking about the mountains, forests, and ocean or the glistening modern skyline of glass skyscrapers. There’s a reason so many films and TV shows are shot on location in and around Vancouver. If it’s scenery you want, this is the place. Vancouver, like any other large Canadian city, also has plenty of cultural depth—an excellent symphony orchestra, live theater, cinema, folk music, improv comedy, professional sports, and museums of every kind. There are major universities, large industries, and rich natural resources, not to mention a vibrant multi-ethnic population. In short, no one needs an excuse to visit Vancouver. There are so many things to do and see there that it’s a compelling tourist destination; undoubtedly this figured in the city’s successful bid to host the 2010 winter Olympics.

The Draw of the Bridge
Having said that, I was shocked and baffled to learn that the most popular tourist attraction in the city—nay, in the entire province—is a footbridge. Incredible but true: each year over 800,000 people pay to walk across the Capilano Suspension Bridge. Now it is indeed quite a nice bridge, as suspension footbridges go. Strung high above the scenic Capilano River, it offers a lovely view. And it’s an impressive feat of engineering too (about which more in a moment). But of all the things that might attract a visitor to the southwestern corner of mainland British Columbia, the enormous appeal of this bridge has always seemed quite strange to me. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Microclimates

Don’t like the weather? Cross the street.

I have lived in many different parts of North America, but for the past decade or so, all of the places I’ve lived have been on the west coast, no more than a few miles from the ocean. There are many things to like about the west coast, but I’m especially fond of the weather. Each city has its specialty—San Diego is famous for sun, San Francisco for fog, and Vancouver for rain. But what this entire strip of land has in common is a relatively temperate climate year-round. Summers are rarely hot, and snow is almost unheard of. Some of my friends complain about the lack of seasonal variation, but not me. I figure, I can go and visit the snow or the sun for a week or two every year if I really miss it—and that’s enough for me.

Besides, we do have seasons, just not the same kinds of seasons as the rest of the continent. Here in San Francisco, the months of June through August are usually cool, especially near the ocean; the hottest month is October. Tourists invariably get this wrong, shivering in shorts in the summer and sweating in the fall. But our generally mild climate has another interesting twist that makes it difficult for me to give a meaningful answer when someone from another part of the world asks me how the weather is. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Six Degrees of Separation

Is it a small world after all?

At family reunions, my mother used to joke about the fact that actress Shirley Jones (of “The Partridge Family” fame) never showed up. Apparently someone had figured out that Jones was a distant relation by marriage, and more than once I heard of plans by one of my cousins to invite her to a reunion just for fun. Whether an invitation was ever actually sent I don’t know, nor can I recall the exact chain of relatives that supposedly connected me to Jones. But I always enjoyed the thought of being related, however distantly, to a celebrity. I imagined showing up at a dinner or award ceremony where I’d be introduced to the rich and famous: “This is Joe Kissell, my third cousin-in-law, once removed.” I didn’t suspect it at the time, but if a prominent sociological theory is correct, I may have indirect social connections to millions or even billions of people.

The theory in question, of course, is that of “Six Degrees of Separation”—roughly, the notion that anyone can form a chain of personal contacts leading to any other person, with no more than six links in the chain. Nearly everyone has heard of this idea, thanks to John Guare’s 1990 play “Six Degrees of Separation” and the “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” game that became popular in the late 1990s. But what many people don’t realize is that this game has its roots in serious sociological research, and that work is currently underway to establish the validity of the theory scientifically. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Invisible Computing

Putting information processing in its place

With each passing year, computers become faster and more powerful, not to mention smaller, cheaper, and more stylish. But whether they are becoming easier to use is a matter of considerable debate. On the one hand you have technology pundits who point out that Mac OS X is a great leap forward in usability from Mac OS 9 or that Windows XP makes computing a lot simpler than Windows 2000 did. I don’t dispute those claims, as far as they go. But on the other side of the debate you have people complaining—rightly so—that improvements in computers have not resulted in shorter work weeks or reduced stress. We spend more time per day in front of our computers now than ever before, and on the whole, this time is not relaxing or fulfilling. And although operating systems have matured and improved, the range of activities we’re expected to be able to perform using computers, and the complexity of individual tasks, have increased tremendously. The net result is that computers require an increasing amount of our time, money, and attention—valuable resources most of us would like to use elsewhere.

It’s Not the Mousetrap, It’s the Mouse
In the world of computer software, in which I’ve worked for many years, the solution to the problem of computer complexity is always assumed to be improving the user interface. If an activity currently requires three mouse clicks, change it so that it only takes one. If text on the screen is too confusing, replace it with a picture. If a menu contains too many commands, group them into smaller lists. And so on. These are all important and worthwhile steps, and I’ve spent a lot of time and effort learning about the principles of good user interface design. But when all is said and done, this is an inadequate solution to the problem. You may have, for example, the slickest and easiest-to-use disk repair utility in the world, but a more fundamental problem is that you need to use such a tool in the first place. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Milk in a Box

Losing the bottle

I’ve managed to suppress most of the memories of my college days—quite wisely, I think—but every once in a while some random factoid springs to mind. For example, I remember very clearly the wonder I felt one evening in the mid-1980s when I walked into a New Jersey supermarket and saw a box of milk on the shelf. At first I didn’t comprehend what I was looking at. I had to study the package at some length before I grasped that this was not powdered milk or some milk-like non-dairy product. Sitting there quite happily at room temperature was a container of milk that, so the label claimed, would remain fresh without refrigeration for months. I couldn’t figure out how they’d managed to pull this off, but I was very excited. Just think of the convenience of not having to buy milk every few days, not to mention saving space in your refrigerator! I bought a box and tried it. OK, the flavor was a bit less than fantastic, but still…pour it on some cereal or in your coffee and you’d never know the difference. This revolutionary development seemed so obviously useful to me that I was certain all milk would be sold this way within a couple of years.

Time passed. The boxes of milk, instead of multiplying on store shelves as I’d expected, disappeared almost entirely. I found this completely baffling. Why hadn’t this sort of milk caught on? I was even more surprised when I went to Europe and discovered that in many places, it’s much harder to find refrigerated milk than boxes or bottles of milk stored at room temperature. So clearly the technology to package milk this way was still in use…but did those Europeans know something that we didn’t? Or was it the other way around? I started wondering about this again recently and decided to investigate. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Mistpouffers

The mystery of phantom thunder

On a few evenings when we were living in San Francisco, we were startled to hear a long succession of enormously loud booming noises. We went outside to investigate. The sky was clear, we didn’t see any lights to suggest explosions, and everyone seemed to be going about their business without worrying about the strange sounds, so we presumed we were simply unaware of some normal occurrence. The source, on further investigation, turned out to be fireworks—sometimes they were coming from the baseball stadium to celebrate a Giants victory or Barry Bonds’s umpteenth home run; other times, we were hearing the KFOG Kaboom, an annual fireworks extravaganza put on by a popular radio station. What amazed us, though, was that the spots where these fireworks were being set off were miles away from us and over a hill—far enough that we couldn’t catch even a glimpse—and yet from the volume we would have thought they were going off right over our heads.

Today’s interesting thing is a phenomenon consisting of similarly mysterious booming noises, but without such a ready explanation. The most generic term I could find for such sounds is mistpouffers (spelled “mistpoeffers” in Belgium and the Netherlands). In various areas they go by such diverse terms as “Guns of the Seneca” (near Seneca Lake and Cayuga Lake in New York), “Barisal guns” (in Bangladesh), “uminari” (in Japan), “fog guns,” “lake guns,” and many others. In all these instances, the terms describe a sound or series of sounds that resemble loud but distant cannon fire, usually heard near the edge of a large body of water. The sounds occur when there are no storms in the vicinity that could produce thunder and no other obvious source. Sometimes they’re accompanied by a rumble that can be felt strongly enough to shake plates and hanging pictures; other times no vibration is felt. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Honey as Medicine

Sweet relief

When I get a sore throat, I always find a cup of tea with some honey very soothing. But thanks to my proper Western scientific conditioning, I always assumed that the restorative power of honey was mostly in my head. Sure, it tastes good and has a pleasant texture that coats my irritated throat, but it’s practically pure sugar, after all. What good could it possibly do me other than diminishing my perception of discomfort for a few minutes? So I’ve been content in my belief that honey is little more than a tasty placebo. Now, ironically enough, my convictions are being challenged, as researchers are turning up new evidence of honey’s medical benefits left and right.

Historically, honey has been used as a folk remedy in cultures around the world for millennia. It has been prescribed informally as a cure for smallpox, baldness, eye diseases, and indigestion. It’s even been used as a contraceptive. As with most natural “cures” unsupported by scientific studies, I sort of chuckle and sigh when I read about things like this—honey may be a silly substitute for real medicine, but at least it’s not bloodletting. However, in this case, the bees may have the last laugh. It turns out that honey’s properties make it a surprisingly effective cure-all. Or, let’s say, cure-much. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Girolle

One small step for cheese engineering

Switzerland is a country known for, among other things, cheese and engineering. These are two concepts that, while important individually, generally do not go together. (In fact, I have been wary of cheese engineering ever since I read The Absurdly Silly Encyclopedia and Fly Swatter by Jovial Bob Stine in 1978. It cautioned the young reader not to build a raft out of cheese, because cheese does not float.) Nevertheless, the great minds of Switzerland have produced a fascinating, interdependent pairing of cheese and machine, neither of which is complete without the other. As both a cheese lover and a gadget lover, I was delighted to discover a unique device called a Girolle. It’s the world’s most clever cheese slicer, and it’s designed to work with just one very special kind of cheese.

Not Your Father’s Cheese
Growing up in the United States, I was conditioned to think of cheese as an ingredient or a topping, not as an independent food. Macaroni and cheese, cheeseburgers, cheese pizza, cheese puffs, and Parmesan sprinkled on spaghetti—these were cheese to me. I turned up my nose at sliced cheese served on a cracker, which seemed unnatural. Everyone knew that the cheese on your cracker was supposed to have been squirted out of a can. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Mead

The prototypical alcoholic beverage

The first time I went to a Renaissance fair, I didn’t quite know what to expect. I understood from the ads that there would be jousting, music, crafts, and people walking around in period clothing, but that’s about it. In theory, a Renaissance fair is supposed to be a re-creation of 15th-century England. That sounded interesting, but I wasn’t entirely sure what it meant. As I explored the fairgrounds, playing primitive arcade games, sampling the crafts, and watching the shows, I was alternately delighted and annoyed by the ubiquitous displays of pseudoauthenticity. I smiled when a guy walked up to me and, wanting to know the time, asked “How stands the hour?” but just rolled my eyes every time I saw a merchant with a sign that read “Master Card and Lady Visa welcome here.” Everyone seemed to speak faux Shakespeare. Those in costume wore custom-made boots that looked believable until you saw the Vibram soles. And everything, of course, had a commercial gimmick. But no matter—it was still great fun.

It was not long before I turned my attention to acquiring some authentic Renaissance food. The roasted turkey legs were quite popular, as was corn on the cob—both believable as period foods. I tried something called a “Scottish Egg,” which was a hard-boiled egg, rolled in batter, covered with ground pork, and deep-fried. Appalling—they might as well have called it Death on a Stick—but delicious. And of course, I needed something to wash all this down with. I couldn’t possibly bring myself to buy a Coke or a Budweiser (both readily available), so I looked for the most authentic-sounding drink I could find. Sure enough, some of the vendors were selling mead. All I knew was the name—I had no idea what was in it or what it tasted like—but I proffered my gold (card) and got a nice authentic plastic cup full of a pale yellow liquid. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

French Butter Dishes

Fresh butter without refrigeration

A few years ago, when Interesting Thing of the Day was just a gleam in my eye, I started asking people for their ideas on interesting topics I should write about. One of my wife’s friends made the very first suggestion. “You should write about French butter dishes,” she said, “—you know, the kind that keep butter fresh without refrigeration.” I had no idea what she was talking about, but I wrote it down on my list anyway. After unsuccessfully trying to locate one of these things in France, I did a few Web searches and sure enough, French butter dishes—like the one now in my kitchen—are quite interesting.

The idea behind French butter dishes is pure, ingenious simplicity. Butter at room temperature quickly turns rancid when exposed to oxygen, so the usual means of preserving it is to store it in the refrigerator. But all that’s really needed is to keep air away from the butter. A French butter dish does this by using water to form a seal between the butter and the air. There are two parts to the dish: a smaller, bell- or cone-shaped piece that sits on a wide base, and a second, larger container. You fill the bell up with butter, put water in the larger container, and invert the bell into the water. Because butter is basically an oil, it won’t mix with the water, and as long as it’s not too hot, it will remain sticky enough to stay inside the bell. You can keep this on your kitchen table so that butter is always available without having to soften it. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Raclette

The cheese that eats like a meal

The term cheesy in English can, and sometimes does, mean “containing cheese.” More often, however, it’s used to mean “cheap,” “shoddy,” or “culturally infelicitous.” Sometimes these two meanings come together, typically in reference to a ’70s-style electric fondue pot. Raise your hand if there’s one in your cupboard that you received as a gift and haven’t used in at least two years. That appears to be…yep, pretty much all of us. OK, put your hand back down; you’ll need it to scroll. But please, for a moment, set aside any prejudice you may have about Swiss tabletop cheese-melting devices. Today I’d like to tell you about another one that is both more (in the good sense) and less (in the bad sense) cheesy.

In Switzerland, the trains run on time—thanks, no doubt, to the seriousness with which the population treats clocks and watches. In much the same way, the Swiss take cheese extremely seriously. There is no such thing as “Swiss cheese” in the sense that Americans think of it—American Swiss cheese is a pale knockoff of Emmenthal, just one of hundreds of varieties of cheese produced by Switzerland’s numerous (and apparently quite happy) cows. And for some of these cheeses, only one method of serving is considered appropriate—Tête de Moine must be shaved on a Girolle; Gruyère is typically melted in a fondue pot. But there’s another type of cheese that requires an exacting preparation ritual, though it’s little known in North America. The cheese is called raclette—a semi-soft, off-white, fairly mild cheese that melts extremely well. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Saturna Island

Less is more (interesting)

I have a special fondness for contradiction—or more accurately, contrariety—the apparent not-going-together of things I like or believe equally. Read enough of these articles and the theme of paradox will be quite evident. For example, I love living in the city, and can’t imagine being without the energy, resources, and constant stimulation it provides. But I could say with equal conviction that I’m happiest when I’m far away from people, noise, and chaos, immersed in the solitude of nature. As a result, when planning a vacation, I’m never quite sure whether I want to “get away from it all” or experience the novelty and adventure of another urban area. Las Vegas, New York, and Paris are among my favorite places to visit; on the other hand, I also enjoy a meditative retreat, a long weekend in the desert, or a lazy trip through the countryside of Provence. But my very favorite place to go for peace and quiet is Saturna Island.

Just Across the Strait
Perhaps I should begin with a quick geography lesson. British Columbia is Canada’s westernmost province. Its largest city, Vancouver (where I lived for three years), is on the Pacific coast, just a few hours’ drive north of Seattle. Not far off the coast—about an hour and a half by ferry—is Vancouver Island, an immense piece of land with an area about the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined. On Vancouver Island you’ll find Victoria, the capital city of British Columbia, and about three-quarters of a million people. The stretch of ocean between the mainland and Vancouver Island is known as the Georgia Strait, and scattered along the 300-mile (483km) length of the strait are hundreds of smaller islands, only a handful of which are inhabited. The Gulf Islands, as they are called, have all the natural beauty typical of the Pacific Northwest, and a much more relaxed pace of life than the big cities. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Curling

Throwing stones for fun and profit

With apologies and all due respect to my Canadian friends and relatives, I have never had the remotest interest in hockey. I’ve tried to watch it a few times, but always found it tedious and hard to follow. Even though the pace of the game is often frantic, there is typically a lot of time between goals, during which I can rarely tell where the puck actually is. Where confrontations between players seem to be the most exciting part of the game for many fans, I don’t enjoy watching people knock each other around. There is, however, another popular Canadian sport that involves sliding objects around on ice: curling. Unlike hockey, curling moves at a fairly slow pace and doesn’t require protective gear.

Stones Without Sticks
When I first heard a description of curling, it sounded too weird and dull to attract my interest. But the first time I saw curling on TV, I had a revelation. “Oh,” I thought, “it’s just like boules on ice.” There is a class of games, including lawn bowling, bocce, boules, shuffleboard, and (in some cases) marbles, that all have the same basic idea in common. Taking turns, competitors launch (throw, roll, or slide) a projectile (ball or puck) toward a target. After several rounds, the player or team with the projectile closest to the target wins; a large part of the strategy is displacing your opponent’s projectiles while protecting your own. I don’t have a name for this general type of game, but once I realized curling fit into this familiar category, I warmed to it considerably. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Temperate Rain Forests

Trees of life

If you ask the average person to name any three countries that have rain forests, chances are their minds will jump to tropical regions—Central and South America, equatorial Africa, or the islands of southeast Asia. Most people would not include, say, Canada on their lists, because as everyone knows, rain forests are consistently hot places. And this is exactly what I always believed too. Several years ago when I was living in Canada, my wife, Morgen, mentioned in passing, “Oh, we’ve got rain forests here.” And I thought: “Yeah, right. And deserts too. What else did Santa Claus tell you?” But it seems Mr. Kringle was right after all. Canada does indeed have rain forests—just not of the tropical variety, which was the only kind I had ever heard of. (As a matter of fact, there are also deserts in Canada…but that’s a story for another day.)

Moisten and Seal
The main thing that determines whether a forest should be considered a rain forest is the amount of rainfall it receives—generally, the threshold is about 100 inches (2.5m) per year. This high moisture content—concentrated still further into fog by the leaves that form the canopy—encourages the heavy growth of plants, which in turn support animal life. When evergreen forests appear along the coast of a landmass with mountains on the other side, the mountains tend to trap the moist air blowing in from the sea, producing an unusually heavy rainfall in the forest. Voilà: rain forest. Such conditions exist in several parts of the world, including the west coast of North America (from Alaska as far south as northern California), the west coast of Chile, parts of Tasmania and New Zealand, and even a small patch of Norway. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Vienna Vegetable Orchestra

Grooves from the garden

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

The 20th-century American composer John Cage was well known for his experimental approach to making music. His most famous composition, titled 4’33” (four minutes and 33 seconds), playfully widens the boundaries of what is considered music. The piece consists of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of structured silence (although it was written to be performed for any length of time), during which time listeners are drawn to discover the ambient sounds going on all around them.

This idea that music can be found in unlikely circumstances has resonated in the works of other composers who followed Cage. In a similar, but unique vein, a group known as the Vienna Vegetable Orchestra, or more simply the Vegetable Orchestra, creates music from an unlikely source: fresh vegetables. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Capilano Suspension Bridge

Vancouver from another point of view

Every time I mention to someone that I spent three years living in Vancouver, British Columbia, I get the same response. “Oh, I’ve heard Vancouver is such a beautiful city. I’d love to visit there some time.” Dozens of people have said the same thing to me, almost as if reciting a line from an advertising campaign. And it’s true: Vancouver is a beautiful city—whether you’re talking about the mountains, forests, and ocean or the glistening modern skyline of glass skyscrapers. There’s a reason so many films and TV shows are shot on location in and around Vancouver. If it’s scenery you want, this is the place. Vancouver, like any other large Canadian city, also has plenty of cultural depth—an excellent symphony orchestra, live theater, cinema, folk music, improv comedy, professional sports, and museums of every kind. There are major universities, large industries, and rich natural resources, not to mention a vibrant multi-ethnic population. In short, no one needs an excuse to visit Vancouver. There are so many things to do and see there that it’s a compelling tourist destination; undoubtedly this figured in the city’s successful bid to host the 2010 winter Olympics.

The Draw of the Bridge
Having said that, I was shocked and baffled to learn that the most popular tourist attraction in the city—nay, in the entire province—is a footbridge. Incredible but true: each year over 800,000 people pay to walk across the Capilano Suspension Bridge. Now it is indeed quite a nice bridge, as suspension footbridges go. Strung high above the scenic Capilano River, it offers a lovely view. And it’s an impressive feat of engineering too (about which more in a moment). But of all the things that might attract a visitor to the southwestern corner of mainland British Columbia, the enormous appeal of this bridge has always seemed quite strange to me. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Microclimates

Don’t like the weather? Cross the street.

I have lived in many different parts of North America, but for the past decade or so, all of the places I’ve lived have been on the west coast, no more than a few miles from the ocean. There are many things to like about the west coast, but I’m especially fond of the weather. Each city has its specialty—San Diego is famous for sun, San Francisco for fog, and Vancouver for rain. But what this entire strip of land has in common is a relatively temperate climate year-round. Summers are rarely hot, and snow is almost unheard of. Some of my friends complain about the lack of seasonal variation, but not me. I figure, I can go and visit the snow or the sun for a week or two every year if I really miss it—and that’s enough for me.

Besides, we do have seasons, just not the same kinds of seasons as the rest of the continent. Here in San Francisco, the months of June through August are usually cool, especially near the ocean; the hottest month is October. Tourists invariably get this wrong, shivering in shorts in the summer and sweating in the fall. But our generally mild climate has another interesting twist that makes it difficult for me to give a meaningful answer when someone from another part of the world asks me how the weather is. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Six Degrees of Separation

Is it a small world after all?

At family reunions, my mother used to joke about the fact that actress Shirley Jones (of “The Partridge Family” fame) never showed up. Apparently someone had figured out that Jones was a distant relation by marriage, and more than once I heard of plans by one of my cousins to invite her to a reunion just for fun. Whether an invitation was ever actually sent I don’t know, nor can I recall the exact chain of relatives that supposedly connected me to Jones. But I always enjoyed the thought of being related, however distantly, to a celebrity. I imagined showing up at a dinner or award ceremony where I’d be introduced to the rich and famous: “This is Joe Kissell, my third cousin-in-law, once removed.” I didn’t suspect it at the time, but if a prominent sociological theory is correct, I may have indirect social connections to millions or even billions of people.

The theory in question, of course, is that of “Six Degrees of Separation”—roughly, the notion that anyone can form a chain of personal contacts leading to any other person, with no more than six links in the chain. Nearly everyone has heard of this idea, thanks to John Guare’s 1990 play “Six Degrees of Separation” and the “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” game that became popular in the late 1990s. But what many people don’t realize is that this game has its roots in serious sociological research, and that work is currently underway to establish the validity of the theory scientifically. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Invisible Computing

Putting information processing in its place

With each passing year, computers become faster and more powerful, not to mention smaller, cheaper, and more stylish. But whether they are becoming easier to use is a matter of considerable debate. On the one hand you have technology pundits who point out that Mac OS X is a great leap forward in usability from Mac OS 9 or that Windows XP makes computing a lot simpler than Windows 2000 did. I don’t dispute those claims, as far as they go. But on the other side of the debate you have people complaining—rightly so—that improvements in computers have not resulted in shorter work weeks or reduced stress. We spend more time per day in front of our computers now than ever before, and on the whole, this time is not relaxing or fulfilling. And although operating systems have matured and improved, the range of activities we’re expected to be able to perform using computers, and the complexity of individual tasks, have increased tremendously. The net result is that computers require an increasing amount of our time, money, and attention—valuable resources most of us would like to use elsewhere.

It’s Not the Mousetrap, It’s the Mouse
In the world of computer software, in which I’ve worked for many years, the solution to the problem of computer complexity is always assumed to be improving the user interface. If an activity currently requires three mouse clicks, change it so that it only takes one. If text on the screen is too confusing, replace it with a picture. If a menu contains too many commands, group them into smaller lists. And so on. These are all important and worthwhile steps, and I’ve spent a lot of time and effort learning about the principles of good user interface design. But when all is said and done, this is an inadequate solution to the problem. You may have, for example, the slickest and easiest-to-use disk repair utility in the world, but a more fundamental problem is that you need to use such a tool in the first place. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Milk in a Box

Losing the bottle

I’ve managed to suppress most of the memories of my college days—quite wisely, I think—but every once in a while some random factoid springs to mind. For example, I remember very clearly the wonder I felt one evening in the mid-1980s when I walked into a New Jersey supermarket and saw a box of milk on the shelf. At first I didn’t comprehend what I was looking at. I had to study the package at some length before I grasped that this was not powdered milk or some milk-like non-dairy product. Sitting there quite happily at room temperature was a container of milk that, so the label claimed, would remain fresh without refrigeration for months. I couldn’t figure out how they’d managed to pull this off, but I was very excited. Just think of the convenience of not having to buy milk every few days, not to mention saving space in your refrigerator! I bought a box and tried it. OK, the flavor was a bit less than fantastic, but still…pour it on some cereal or in your coffee and you’d never know the difference. This revolutionary development seemed so obviously useful to me that I was certain all milk would be sold this way within a couple of years.

Time passed. The boxes of milk, instead of multiplying on store shelves as I’d expected, disappeared almost entirely. I found this completely baffling. Why hadn’t this sort of milk caught on? I was even more surprised when I went to Europe and discovered that in many places, it’s much harder to find refrigerated milk than boxes or bottles of milk stored at room temperature. So clearly the technology to package milk this way was still in use…but did those Europeans know something that we didn’t? Or was it the other way around? I started wondering about this again recently and decided to investigate. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Mistpouffers

The mystery of phantom thunder

On a few evenings when we were living in San Francisco, we were startled to hear a long succession of enormously loud booming noises. We went outside to investigate. The sky was clear, we didn’t see any lights to suggest explosions, and everyone seemed to be going about their business without worrying about the strange sounds, so we presumed we were simply unaware of some normal occurrence. The source, on further investigation, turned out to be fireworks—sometimes they were coming from the baseball stadium to celebrate a Giants victory or Barry Bonds’s umpteenth home run; other times, we were hearing the KFOG Kaboom, an annual fireworks extravaganza put on by a popular radio station. What amazed us, though, was that the spots where these fireworks were being set off were miles away from us and over a hill—far enough that we couldn’t catch even a glimpse—and yet from the volume we would have thought they were going off right over our heads.

Today’s interesting thing is a phenomenon consisting of similarly mysterious booming noises, but without such a ready explanation. The most generic term I could find for such sounds is mistpouffers (spelled “mistpoeffers” in Belgium and the Netherlands). In various areas they go by such diverse terms as “Guns of the Seneca” (near Seneca Lake and Cayuga Lake in New York), “Barisal guns” (in Bangladesh), “uminari” (in Japan), “fog guns,” “lake guns,” and many others. In all these instances, the terms describe a sound or series of sounds that resemble loud but distant cannon fire, usually heard near the edge of a large body of water. The sounds occur when there are no storms in the vicinity that could produce thunder and no other obvious source. Sometimes they’re accompanied by a rumble that can be felt strongly enough to shake plates and hanging pictures; other times no vibration is felt. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Honey as Medicine

Sweet relief

When I get a sore throat, I always find a cup of tea with some honey very soothing. But thanks to my proper Western scientific conditioning, I always assumed that the restorative power of honey was mostly in my head. Sure, it tastes good and has a pleasant texture that coats my irritated throat, but it’s practically pure sugar, after all. What good could it possibly do me other than diminishing my perception of discomfort for a few minutes? So I’ve been content in my belief that honey is little more than a tasty placebo. Now, ironically enough, my convictions are being challenged, as researchers are turning up new evidence of honey’s medical benefits left and right.

Historically, honey has been used as a folk remedy in cultures around the world for millennia. It has been prescribed informally as a cure for smallpox, baldness, eye diseases, and indigestion. It’s even been used as a contraceptive. As with most natural “cures” unsupported by scientific studies, I sort of chuckle and sigh when I read about things like this—honey may be a silly substitute for real medicine, but at least it’s not bloodletting. However, in this case, the bees may have the last laugh. It turns out that honey’s properties make it a surprisingly effective cure-all. Or, let’s say, cure-much. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Girolle

One small step for cheese engineering

Switzerland is a country known for, among other things, cheese and engineering. These are two concepts that, while important individually, generally do not go together. (In fact, I have been wary of cheese engineering ever since I read The Absurdly Silly Encyclopedia and Fly Swatter by Jovial Bob Stine in 1978. It cautioned the young reader not to build a raft out of cheese, because cheese does not float.) Nevertheless, the great minds of Switzerland have produced a fascinating, interdependent pairing of cheese and machine, neither of which is complete without the other. As both a cheese lover and a gadget lover, I was delighted to discover a unique device called a Girolle. It’s the world’s most clever cheese slicer, and it’s designed to work with just one very special kind of cheese.

Not Your Father’s Cheese
Growing up in the United States, I was conditioned to think of cheese as an ingredient or a topping, not as an independent food. Macaroni and cheese, cheeseburgers, cheese pizza, cheese puffs, and Parmesan sprinkled on spaghetti—these were cheese to me. I turned up my nose at sliced cheese served on a cracker, which seemed unnatural. Everyone knew that the cheese on your cracker was supposed to have been squirted out of a can. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Mead

The prototypical alcoholic beverage

The first time I went to a Renaissance fair, I didn’t quite know what to expect. I understood from the ads that there would be jousting, music, crafts, and people walking around in period clothing, but that’s about it. In theory, a Renaissance fair is supposed to be a re-creation of 15th-century England. That sounded interesting, but I wasn’t entirely sure what it meant. As I explored the fairgrounds, playing primitive arcade games, sampling the crafts, and watching the shows, I was alternately delighted and annoyed by the ubiquitous displays of pseudoauthenticity. I smiled when a guy walked up to me and, wanting to know the time, asked “How stands the hour?” but just rolled my eyes every time I saw a merchant with a sign that read “Master Card and Lady Visa welcome here.” Everyone seemed to speak faux Shakespeare. Those in costume wore custom-made boots that looked believable until you saw the Vibram soles. And everything, of course, had a commercial gimmick. But no matter—it was still great fun.

It was not long before I turned my attention to acquiring some authentic Renaissance food. The roasted turkey legs were quite popular, as was corn on the cob—both believable as period foods. I tried something called a “Scottish Egg,” which was a hard-boiled egg, rolled in batter, covered with ground pork, and deep-fried. Appalling—they might as well have called it Death on a Stick—but delicious. And of course, I needed something to wash all this down with. I couldn’t possibly bring myself to buy a Coke or a Budweiser (both readily available), so I looked for the most authentic-sounding drink I could find. Sure enough, some of the vendors were selling mead. All I knew was the name—I had no idea what was in it or what it tasted like—but I proffered my gold (card) and got a nice authentic plastic cup full of a pale yellow liquid. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

French Butter Dishes

Fresh butter without refrigeration

A few years ago, when Interesting Thing of the Day was just a gleam in my eye, I started asking people for their ideas on interesting topics I should write about. One of my wife’s friends made the very first suggestion. “You should write about French butter dishes,” she said, “—you know, the kind that keep butter fresh without refrigeration.” I had no idea what she was talking about, but I wrote it down on my list anyway. After unsuccessfully trying to locate one of these things in France, I did a few Web searches and sure enough, French butter dishes—like the one now in my kitchen—are quite interesting.

The idea behind French butter dishes is pure, ingenious simplicity. Butter at room temperature quickly turns rancid when exposed to oxygen, so the usual means of preserving it is to store it in the refrigerator. But all that’s really needed is to keep air away from the butter. A French butter dish does this by using water to form a seal between the butter and the air. There are two parts to the dish: a smaller, bell- or cone-shaped piece that sits on a wide base, and a second, larger container. You fill the bell up with butter, put water in the larger container, and invert the bell into the water. Because butter is basically an oil, it won’t mix with the water, and as long as it’s not too hot, it will remain sticky enough to stay inside the bell. You can keep this on your kitchen table so that butter is always available without having to soften it. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Raclette

The cheese that eats like a meal

The term cheesy in English can, and sometimes does, mean “containing cheese.” More often, however, it’s used to mean “cheap,” “shoddy,” or “culturally infelicitous.” Sometimes these two meanings come together, typically in reference to a ’70s-style electric fondue pot. Raise your hand if there’s one in your cupboard that you received as a gift and haven’t used in at least two years. That appears to be…yep, pretty much all of us. OK, put your hand back down; you’ll need it to scroll. But please, for a moment, set aside any prejudice you may have about Swiss tabletop cheese-melting devices. Today I’d like to tell you about another one that is both more (in the good sense) and less (in the bad sense) cheesy.

In Switzerland, the trains run on time—thanks, no doubt, to the seriousness with which the population treats clocks and watches. In much the same way, the Swiss take cheese extremely seriously. There is no such thing as “Swiss cheese” in the sense that Americans think of it—American Swiss cheese is a pale knockoff of Emmenthal, just one of hundreds of varieties of cheese produced by Switzerland’s numerous (and apparently quite happy) cows. And for some of these cheeses, only one method of serving is considered appropriate—Tête de Moine must be shaved on a Girolle; Gruyère is typically melted in a fondue pot. But there’s another type of cheese that requires an exacting preparation ritual, though it’s little known in North America. The cheese is called raclette—a semi-soft, off-white, fairly mild cheese that melts extremely well. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Saturna Island

Less is more (interesting)

I have a special fondness for contradiction—or more accurately, contrariety—the apparent not-going-together of things I like or believe equally. Read enough of these articles and the theme of paradox will be quite evident. For example, I love living in the city, and can’t imagine being without the energy, resources, and constant stimulation it provides. But I could say with equal conviction that I’m happiest when I’m far away from people, noise, and chaos, immersed in the solitude of nature. As a result, when planning a vacation, I’m never quite sure whether I want to “get away from it all” or experience the novelty and adventure of another urban area. Las Vegas, New York, and Paris are among my favorite places to visit; on the other hand, I also enjoy a meditative retreat, a long weekend in the desert, or a lazy trip through the countryside of Provence. But my very favorite place to go for peace and quiet is Saturna Island.

Just Across the Strait
Perhaps I should begin with a quick geography lesson. British Columbia is Canada’s westernmost province. Its largest city, Vancouver (where I lived for three years), is on the Pacific coast, just a few hours’ drive north of Seattle. Not far off the coast—about an hour and a half by ferry—is Vancouver Island, an immense piece of land with an area about the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined. On Vancouver Island you’ll find Victoria, the capital city of British Columbia, and about three-quarters of a million people. The stretch of ocean between the mainland and Vancouver Island is known as the Georgia Strait, and scattered along the 300-mile (483km) length of the strait are hundreds of smaller islands, only a handful of which are inhabited. The Gulf Islands, as they are called, have all the natural beauty typical of the Pacific Northwest, and a much more relaxed pace of life than the big cities. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Curling

Throwing stones for fun and profit

With apologies and all due respect to my Canadian friends and relatives, I have never had the remotest interest in hockey. I’ve tried to watch it a few times, but always found it tedious and hard to follow. Even though the pace of the game is often frantic, there is typically a lot of time between goals, during which I can rarely tell where the puck actually is. Where confrontations between players seem to be the most exciting part of the game for many fans, I don’t enjoy watching people knock each other around. There is, however, another popular Canadian sport that involves sliding objects around on ice: curling. Unlike hockey, curling moves at a fairly slow pace and doesn’t require protective gear.

Stones Without Sticks
When I first heard a description of curling, it sounded too weird and dull to attract my interest. But the first time I saw curling on TV, I had a revelation. “Oh,” I thought, “it’s just like boules on ice.” There is a class of games, including lawn bowling, bocce, boules, shuffleboard, and (in some cases) marbles, that all have the same basic idea in common. Taking turns, competitors launch (throw, roll, or slide) a projectile (ball or puck) toward a target. After several rounds, the player or team with the projectile closest to the target wins; a large part of the strategy is displacing your opponent’s projectiles while protecting your own. I don’t have a name for this general type of game, but once I realized curling fit into this familiar category, I warmed to it considerably. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Temperate Rain Forests

Trees of life

If you ask the average person to name any three countries that have rain forests, chances are their minds will jump to tropical regions—Central and South America, equatorial Africa, or the islands of southeast Asia. Most people would not include, say, Canada on their lists, because as everyone knows, rain forests are consistently hot places. And this is exactly what I always believed too. Several years ago when I was living in Canada, my wife, Morgen, mentioned in passing, “Oh, we’ve got rain forests here.” And I thought: “Yeah, right. And deserts too. What else did Santa Claus tell you?” But it seems Mr. Kringle was right after all. Canada does indeed have rain forests—just not of the tropical variety, which was the only kind I had ever heard of. (As a matter of fact, there are also deserts in Canada…but that’s a story for another day.)

Moisten and Seal
The main thing that determines whether a forest should be considered a rain forest is the amount of rainfall it receives—generally, the threshold is about 100 inches (2.5m) per year. This high moisture content—concentrated still further into fog by the leaves that form the canopy—encourages the heavy growth of plants, which in turn support animal life. When evergreen forests appear along the coast of a landmass with mountains on the other side, the mountains tend to trap the moist air blowing in from the sea, producing an unusually heavy rainfall in the forest. Voilà: rain forest. Such conditions exist in several parts of the world, including the west coast of North America (from Alaska as far south as northern California), the west coast of Chile, parts of Tasmania and New Zealand, and even a small patch of Norway. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Vienna Vegetable Orchestra

Grooves from the garden

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

The 20th-century American composer John Cage was well known for his experimental approach to making music. His most famous composition, titled 4’33” (four minutes and 33 seconds), playfully widens the boundaries of what is considered music. The piece consists of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of structured silence (although it was written to be performed for any length of time), during which time listeners are drawn to discover the ambient sounds going on all around them.

This idea that music can be found in unlikely circumstances has resonated in the works of other composers who followed Cage. In a similar, but unique vein, a group known as the Vienna Vegetable Orchestra, or more simply the Vegetable Orchestra, creates music from an unlikely source: fresh vegetables. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Capilano Suspension Bridge

Vancouver from another point of view

Every time I mention to someone that I spent three years living in Vancouver, British Columbia, I get the same response. “Oh, I’ve heard Vancouver is such a beautiful city. I’d love to visit there some time.” Dozens of people have said the same thing to me, almost as if reciting a line from an advertising campaign. And it’s true: Vancouver is a beautiful city—whether you’re talking about the mountains, forests, and ocean or the glistening modern skyline of glass skyscrapers. There’s a reason so many films and TV shows are shot on location in and around Vancouver. If it’s scenery you want, this is the place. Vancouver, like any other large Canadian city, also has plenty of cultural depth—an excellent symphony orchestra, live theater, cinema, folk music, improv comedy, professional sports, and museums of every kind. There are major universities, large industries, and rich natural resources, not to mention a vibrant multi-ethnic population. In short, no one needs an excuse to visit Vancouver. There are so many things to do and see there that it’s a compelling tourist destination; undoubtedly this figured in the city’s successful bid to host the 2010 winter Olympics.

The Draw of the Bridge
Having said that, I was shocked and baffled to learn that the most popular tourist attraction in the city—nay, in the entire province—is a footbridge. Incredible but true: each year over 800,000 people pay to walk across the Capilano Suspension Bridge. Now it is indeed quite a nice bridge, as suspension footbridges go. Strung high above the scenic Capilano River, it offers a lovely view. And it’s an impressive feat of engineering too (about which more in a moment). But of all the things that might attract a visitor to the southwestern corner of mainland British Columbia, the enormous appeal of this bridge has always seemed quite strange to me. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Microclimates

Don’t like the weather? Cross the street.

I have lived in many different parts of North America, but for the past decade or so, all of the places I’ve lived have been on the west coast, no more than a few miles from the ocean. There are many things to like about the west coast, but I’m especially fond of the weather. Each city has its specialty—San Diego is famous for sun, San Francisco for fog, and Vancouver for rain. But what this entire strip of land has in common is a relatively temperate climate year-round. Summers are rarely hot, and snow is almost unheard of. Some of my friends complain about the lack of seasonal variation, but not me. I figure, I can go and visit the snow or the sun for a week or two every year if I really miss it—and that’s enough for me.

Besides, we do have seasons, just not the same kinds of seasons as the rest of the continent. Here in San Francisco, the months of June through August are usually cool, especially near the ocean; the hottest month is October. Tourists invariably get this wrong, shivering in shorts in the summer and sweating in the fall. But our generally mild climate has another interesting twist that makes it difficult for me to give a meaningful answer when someone from another part of the world asks me how the weather is. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Six Degrees of Separation

Is it a small world after all?

At family reunions, my mother used to joke about the fact that actress Shirley Jones (of “The Partridge Family” fame) never showed up. Apparently someone had figured out that Jones was a distant relation by marriage, and more than once I heard of plans by one of my cousins to invite her to a reunion just for fun. Whether an invitation was ever actually sent I don’t know, nor can I recall the exact chain of relatives that supposedly connected me to Jones. But I always enjoyed the thought of being related, however distantly, to a celebrity. I imagined showing up at a dinner or award ceremony where I’d be introduced to the rich and famous: “This is Joe Kissell, my third cousin-in-law, once removed.” I didn’t suspect it at the time, but if a prominent sociological theory is correct, I may have indirect social connections to millions or even billions of people.

The theory in question, of course, is that of “Six Degrees of Separation”—roughly, the notion that anyone can form a chain of personal contacts leading to any other person, with no more than six links in the chain. Nearly everyone has heard of this idea, thanks to John Guare’s 1990 play “Six Degrees of Separation” and the “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” game that became popular in the late 1990s. But what many people don’t realize is that this game has its roots in serious sociological research, and that work is currently underway to establish the validity of the theory scientifically. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Invisible Computing

Putting information processing in its place

With each passing year, computers become faster and more powerful, not to mention smaller, cheaper, and more stylish. But whether they are becoming easier to use is a matter of considerable debate. On the one hand you have technology pundits who point out that Mac OS X is a great leap forward in usability from Mac OS 9 or that Windows XP makes computing a lot simpler than Windows 2000 did. I don’t dispute those claims, as far as they go. But on the other side of the debate you have people complaining—rightly so—that improvements in computers have not resulted in shorter work weeks or reduced stress. We spend more time per day in front of our computers now than ever before, and on the whole, this time is not relaxing or fulfilling. And although operating systems have matured and improved, the range of activities we’re expected to be able to perform using computers, and the complexity of individual tasks, have increased tremendously. The net result is that computers require an increasing amount of our time, money, and attention—valuable resources most of us would like to use elsewhere.

It’s Not the Mousetrap, It’s the Mouse
In the world of computer software, in which I’ve worked for many years, the solution to the problem of computer complexity is always assumed to be improving the user interface. If an activity currently requires three mouse clicks, change it so that it only takes one. If text on the screen is too confusing, replace it with a picture. If a menu contains too many commands, group them into smaller lists. And so on. These are all important and worthwhile steps, and I’ve spent a lot of time and effort learning about the principles of good user interface design. But when all is said and done, this is an inadequate solution to the problem. You may have, for example, the slickest and easiest-to-use disk repair utility in the world, but a more fundamental problem is that you need to use such a tool in the first place. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Milk in a Box

Losing the bottle

I’ve managed to suppress most of the memories of my college days—quite wisely, I think—but every once in a while some random factoid springs to mind. For example, I remember very clearly the wonder I felt one evening in the mid-1980s when I walked into a New Jersey supermarket and saw a box of milk on the shelf. At first I didn’t comprehend what I was looking at. I had to study the package at some length before I grasped that this was not powdered milk or some milk-like non-dairy product. Sitting there quite happily at room temperature was a container of milk that, so the label claimed, would remain fresh without refrigeration for months. I couldn’t figure out how they’d managed to pull this off, but I was very excited. Just think of the convenience of not having to buy milk every few days, not to mention saving space in your refrigerator! I bought a box and tried it. OK, the flavor was a bit less than fantastic, but still…pour it on some cereal or in your coffee and you’d never know the difference. This revolutionary development seemed so obviously useful to me that I was certain all milk would be sold this way within a couple of years.

Time passed. The boxes of milk, instead of multiplying on store shelves as I’d expected, disappeared almost entirely. I found this completely baffling. Why hadn’t this sort of milk caught on? I was even more surprised when I went to Europe and discovered that in many places, it’s much harder to find refrigerated milk than boxes or bottles of milk stored at room temperature. So clearly the technology to package milk this way was still in use…but did those Europeans know something that we didn’t? Or was it the other way around? I started wondering about this again recently and decided to investigate. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Mistpouffers

The mystery of phantom thunder

On a few evenings when we were living in San Francisco, we were startled to hear a long succession of enormously loud booming noises. We went outside to investigate. The sky was clear, we didn’t see any lights to suggest explosions, and everyone seemed to be going about their business without worrying about the strange sounds, so we presumed we were simply unaware of some normal occurrence. The source, on further investigation, turned out to be fireworks—sometimes they were coming from the baseball stadium to celebrate a Giants victory or Barry Bonds’s umpteenth home run; other times, we were hearing the KFOG Kaboom, an annual fireworks extravaganza put on by a popular radio station. What amazed us, though, was that the spots where these fireworks were being set off were miles away from us and over a hill—far enough that we couldn’t catch even a glimpse—and yet from the volume we would have thought they were going off right over our heads.

Today’s interesting thing is a phenomenon consisting of similarly mysterious booming noises, but without such a ready explanation. The most generic term I could find for such sounds is mistpouffers (spelled “mistpoeffers” in Belgium and the Netherlands). In various areas they go by such diverse terms as “Guns of the Seneca” (near Seneca Lake and Cayuga Lake in New York), “Barisal guns” (in Bangladesh), “uminari” (in Japan), “fog guns,” “lake guns,” and many others. In all these instances, the terms describe a sound or series of sounds that resemble loud but distant cannon fire, usually heard near the edge of a large body of water. The sounds occur when there are no storms in the vicinity that could produce thunder and no other obvious source. Sometimes they’re accompanied by a rumble that can be felt strongly enough to shake plates and hanging pictures; other times no vibration is felt. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Honey as Medicine

Sweet relief

When I get a sore throat, I always find a cup of tea with some honey very soothing. But thanks to my proper Western scientific conditioning, I always assumed that the restorative power of honey was mostly in my head. Sure, it tastes good and has a pleasant texture that coats my irritated throat, but it’s practically pure sugar, after all. What good could it possibly do me other than diminishing my perception of discomfort for a few minutes? So I’ve been content in my belief that honey is little more than a tasty placebo. Now, ironically enough, my convictions are being challenged, as researchers are turning up new evidence of honey’s medical benefits left and right.

Historically, honey has been used as a folk remedy in cultures around the world for millennia. It has been prescribed informally as a cure for smallpox, baldness, eye diseases, and indigestion. It’s even been used as a contraceptive. As with most natural “cures” unsupported by scientific studies, I sort of chuckle and sigh when I read about things like this—honey may be a silly substitute for real medicine, but at least it’s not bloodletting. However, in this case, the bees may have the last laugh. It turns out that honey’s properties make it a surprisingly effective cure-all. Or, let’s say, cure-much. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Girolle

One small step for cheese engineering

Switzerland is a country known for, among other things, cheese and engineering. These are two concepts that, while important individually, generally do not go together. (In fact, I have been wary of cheese engineering ever since I read The Absurdly Silly Encyclopedia and Fly Swatter by Jovial Bob Stine in 1978. It cautioned the young reader not to build a raft out of cheese, because cheese does not float.) Nevertheless, the great minds of Switzerland have produced a fascinating, interdependent pairing of cheese and machine, neither of which is complete without the other. As both a cheese lover and a gadget lover, I was delighted to discover a unique device called a Girolle. It’s the world’s most clever cheese slicer, and it’s designed to work with just one very special kind of cheese.

Not Your Father’s Cheese
Growing up in the United States, I was conditioned to think of cheese as an ingredient or a topping, not as an independent food. Macaroni and cheese, cheeseburgers, cheese pizza, cheese puffs, and Parmesan sprinkled on spaghetti—these were cheese to me. I turned up my nose at sliced cheese served on a cracker, which seemed unnatural. Everyone knew that the cheese on your cracker was supposed to have been squirted out of a can. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Mead

The prototypical alcoholic beverage

The first time I went to a Renaissance fair, I didn’t quite know what to expect. I understood from the ads that there would be jousting, music, crafts, and people walking around in period clothing, but that’s about it. In theory, a Renaissance fair is supposed to be a re-creation of 15th-century England. That sounded interesting, but I wasn’t entirely sure what it meant. As I explored the fairgrounds, playing primitive arcade games, sampling the crafts, and watching the shows, I was alternately delighted and annoyed by the ubiquitous displays of pseudoauthenticity. I smiled when a guy walked up to me and, wanting to know the time, asked “How stands the hour?” but just rolled my eyes every time I saw a merchant with a sign that read “Master Card and Lady Visa welcome here.” Everyone seemed to speak faux Shakespeare. Those in costume wore custom-made boots that looked believable until you saw the Vibram soles. And everything, of course, had a commercial gimmick. But no matter—it was still great fun.

It was not long before I turned my attention to acquiring some authentic Renaissance food. The roasted turkey legs were quite popular, as was corn on the cob—both believable as period foods. I tried something called a “Scottish Egg,” which was a hard-boiled egg, rolled in batter, covered with ground pork, and deep-fried. Appalling—they might as well have called it Death on a Stick—but delicious. And of course, I needed something to wash all this down with. I couldn’t possibly bring myself to buy a Coke or a Budweiser (both readily available), so I looked for the most authentic-sounding drink I could find. Sure enough, some of the vendors were selling mead. All I knew was the name—I had no idea what was in it or what it tasted like—but I proffered my gold (card) and got a nice authentic plastic cup full of a pale yellow liquid. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

French Butter Dishes

Fresh butter without refrigeration

A few years ago, when Interesting Thing of the Day was just a gleam in my eye, I started asking people for their ideas on interesting topics I should write about. One of my wife’s friends made the very first suggestion. “You should write about French butter dishes,” she said, “—you know, the kind that keep butter fresh without refrigeration.” I had no idea what she was talking about, but I wrote it down on my list anyway. After unsuccessfully trying to locate one of these things in France, I did a few Web searches and sure enough, French butter dishes—like the one now in my kitchen—are quite interesting.

The idea behind French butter dishes is pure, ingenious simplicity. Butter at room temperature quickly turns rancid when exposed to oxygen, so the usual means of preserving it is to store it in the refrigerator. But all that’s really needed is to keep air away from the butter. A French butter dish does this by using water to form a seal between the butter and the air. There are two parts to the dish: a smaller, bell- or cone-shaped piece that sits on a wide base, and a second, larger container. You fill the bell up with butter, put water in the larger container, and invert the bell into the water. Because butter is basically an oil, it won’t mix with the water, and as long as it’s not too hot, it will remain sticky enough to stay inside the bell. You can keep this on your kitchen table so that butter is always available without having to soften it. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Raclette

The cheese that eats like a meal

The term cheesy in English can, and sometimes does, mean “containing cheese.” More often, however, it’s used to mean “cheap,” “shoddy,” or “culturally infelicitous.” Sometimes these two meanings come together, typically in reference to a ’70s-style electric fondue pot. Raise your hand if there’s one in your cupboard that you received as a gift and haven’t used in at least two years. That appears to be…yep, pretty much all of us. OK, put your hand back down; you’ll need it to scroll. But please, for a moment, set aside any prejudice you may have about Swiss tabletop cheese-melting devices. Today I’d like to tell you about another one that is both more (in the good sense) and less (in the bad sense) cheesy.

In Switzerland, the trains run on time—thanks, no doubt, to the seriousness with which the population treats clocks and watches. In much the same way, the Swiss take cheese extremely seriously. There is no such thing as “Swiss cheese” in the sense that Americans think of it—American Swiss cheese is a pale knockoff of Emmenthal, just one of hundreds of varieties of cheese produced by Switzerland’s numerous (and apparently quite happy) cows. And for some of these cheeses, only one method of serving is considered appropriate—Tête de Moine must be shaved on a Girolle; Gruyère is typically melted in a fondue pot. But there’s another type of cheese that requires an exacting preparation ritual, though it’s little known in North America. The cheese is called raclette—a semi-soft, off-white, fairly mild cheese that melts extremely well. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Saturna Island

Less is more (interesting)

I have a special fondness for contradiction—or more accurately, contrariety—the apparent not-going-together of things I like or believe equally. Read enough of these articles and the theme of paradox will be quite evident. For example, I love living in the city, and can’t imagine being without the energy, resources, and constant stimulation it provides. But I could say with equal conviction that I’m happiest when I’m far away from people, noise, and chaos, immersed in the solitude of nature. As a result, when planning a vacation, I’m never quite sure whether I want to “get away from it all” or experience the novelty and adventure of another urban area. Las Vegas, New York, and Paris are among my favorite places to visit; on the other hand, I also enjoy a meditative retreat, a long weekend in the desert, or a lazy trip through the countryside of Provence. But my very favorite place to go for peace and quiet is Saturna Island.

Just Across the Strait
Perhaps I should begin with a quick geography lesson. British Columbia is Canada’s westernmost province. Its largest city, Vancouver (where I lived for three years), is on the Pacific coast, just a few hours’ drive north of Seattle. Not far off the coast—about an hour and a half by ferry—is Vancouver Island, an immense piece of land with an area about the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined. On Vancouver Island you’ll find Victoria, the capital city of British Columbia, and about three-quarters of a million people. The stretch of ocean between the mainland and Vancouver Island is known as the Georgia Strait, and scattered along the 300-mile (483km) length of the strait are hundreds of smaller islands, only a handful of which are inhabited. The Gulf Islands, as they are called, have all the natural beauty typical of the Pacific Northwest, and a much more relaxed pace of life than the big cities. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Curling

Throwing stones for fun and profit

With apologies and all due respect to my Canadian friends and relatives, I have never had the remotest interest in hockey. I’ve tried to watch it a few times, but always found it tedious and hard to follow. Even though the pace of the game is often frantic, there is typically a lot of time between goals, during which I can rarely tell where the puck actually is. Where confrontations between players seem to be the most exciting part of the game for many fans, I don’t enjoy watching people knock each other around. There is, however, another popular Canadian sport that involves sliding objects around on ice: curling. Unlike hockey, curling moves at a fairly slow pace and doesn’t require protective gear.

Stones Without Sticks
When I first heard a description of curling, it sounded too weird and dull to attract my interest. But the first time I saw curling on TV, I had a revelation. “Oh,” I thought, “it’s just like boules on ice.” There is a class of games, including lawn bowling, bocce, boules, shuffleboard, and (in some cases) marbles, that all have the same basic idea in common. Taking turns, competitors launch (throw, roll, or slide) a projectile (ball or puck) toward a target. After several rounds, the player or team with the projectile closest to the target wins; a large part of the strategy is displacing your opponent’s projectiles while protecting your own. I don’t have a name for this general type of game, but once I realized curling fit into this familiar category, I warmed to it considerably. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Temperate Rain Forests

Trees of life

If you ask the average person to name any three countries that have rain forests, chances are their minds will jump to tropical regions—Central and South America, equatorial Africa, or the islands of southeast Asia. Most people would not include, say, Canada on their lists, because as everyone knows, rain forests are consistently hot places. And this is exactly what I always believed too. Several years ago when I was living in Canada, my wife, Morgen, mentioned in passing, “Oh, we’ve got rain forests here.” And I thought: “Yeah, right. And deserts too. What else did Santa Claus tell you?” But it seems Mr. Kringle was right after all. Canada does indeed have rain forests—just not of the tropical variety, which was the only kind I had ever heard of. (As a matter of fact, there are also deserts in Canada…but that’s a story for another day.)

Moisten and Seal
The main thing that determines whether a forest should be considered a rain forest is the amount of rainfall it receives—generally, the threshold is about 100 inches (2.5m) per year. This high moisture content—concentrated still further into fog by the leaves that form the canopy—encourages the heavy growth of plants, which in turn support animal life. When evergreen forests appear along the coast of a landmass with mountains on the other side, the mountains tend to trap the moist air blowing in from the sea, producing an unusually heavy rainfall in the forest. Voilà: rain forest. Such conditions exist in several parts of the world, including the west coast of North America (from Alaska as far south as northern California), the west coast of Chile, parts of Tasmania and New Zealand, and even a small patch of Norway. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Vienna Vegetable Orchestra

Grooves from the garden

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

The 20th-century American composer John Cage was well known for his experimental approach to making music. His most famous composition, titled 4’33” (four minutes and 33 seconds), playfully widens the boundaries of what is considered music. The piece consists of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of structured silence (although it was written to be performed for any length of time), during which time listeners are drawn to discover the ambient sounds going on all around them.

This idea that music can be found in unlikely circumstances has resonated in the works of other composers who followed Cage. In a similar, but unique vein, a group known as the Vienna Vegetable Orchestra, or more simply the Vegetable Orchestra, creates music from an unlikely source: fresh vegetables. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Capilano Suspension Bridge

Vancouver from another point of view

Every time I mention to someone that I spent three years living in Vancouver, British Columbia, I get the same response. “Oh, I’ve heard Vancouver is such a beautiful city. I’d love to visit there some time.” Dozens of people have said the same thing to me, almost as if reciting a line from an advertising campaign. And it’s true: Vancouver is a beautiful city—whether you’re talking about the mountains, forests, and ocean or the glistening modern skyline of glass skyscrapers. There’s a reason so many films and TV shows are shot on location in and around Vancouver. If it’s scenery you want, this is the place. Vancouver, like any other large Canadian city, also has plenty of cultural depth—an excellent symphony orchestra, live theater, cinema, folk music, improv comedy, professional sports, and museums of every kind. There are major universities, large industries, and rich natural resources, not to mention a vibrant multi-ethnic population. In short, no one needs an excuse to visit Vancouver. There are so many things to do and see there that it’s a compelling tourist destination; undoubtedly this figured in the city’s successful bid to host the 2010 winter Olympics.

The Draw of the Bridge
Having said that, I was shocked and baffled to learn that the most popular tourist attraction in the city—nay, in the entire province—is a footbridge. Incredible but true: each year over 800,000 people pay to walk across the Capilano Suspension Bridge. Now it is indeed quite a nice bridge, as suspension footbridges go. Strung high above the scenic Capilano River, it offers a lovely view. And it’s an impressive feat of engineering too (about which more in a moment). But of all the things that might attract a visitor to the southwestern corner of mainland British Columbia, the enormous appeal of this bridge has always seemed quite strange to me. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Microclimates

Don’t like the weather? Cross the street.

I have lived in many different parts of North America, but for the past decade or so, all of the places I’ve lived have been on the west coast, no more than a few miles from the ocean. There are many things to like about the west coast, but I’m especially fond of the weather. Each city has its specialty—San Diego is famous for sun, San Francisco for fog, and Vancouver for rain. But what this entire strip of land has in common is a relatively temperate climate year-round. Summers are rarely hot, and snow is almost unheard of. Some of my friends complain about the lack of seasonal variation, but not me. I figure, I can go and visit the snow or the sun for a week or two every year if I really miss it—and that’s enough for me.

Besides, we do have seasons, just not the same kinds of seasons as the rest of the continent. Here in San Francisco, the months of June through August are usually cool, especially near the ocean; the hottest month is October. Tourists invariably get this wrong, shivering in shorts in the summer and sweating in the fall. But our generally mild climate has another interesting twist that makes it difficult for me to give a meaningful answer when someone from another part of the world asks me how the weather is. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Six Degrees of Separation

Is it a small world after all?

At family reunions, my mother used to joke about the fact that actress Shirley Jones (of “The Partridge Family” fame) never showed up. Apparently someone had figured out that Jones was a distant relation by marriage, and more than once I heard of plans by one of my cousins to invite her to a reunion just for fun. Whether an invitation was ever actually sent I don’t know, nor can I recall the exact chain of relatives that supposedly connected me to Jones. But I always enjoyed the thought of being related, however distantly, to a celebrity. I imagined showing up at a dinner or award ceremony where I’d be introduced to the rich and famous: “This is Joe Kissell, my third cousin-in-law, once removed.” I didn’t suspect it at the time, but if a prominent sociological theory is correct, I may have indirect social connections to millions or even billions of people.

The theory in question, of course, is that of “Six Degrees of Separation”—roughly, the notion that anyone can form a chain of personal contacts leading to any other person, with no more than six links in the chain. Nearly everyone has heard of this idea, thanks to John Guare’s 1990 play “Six Degrees of Separation” and the “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” game that became popular in the late 1990s. But what many people don’t realize is that this game has its roots in serious sociological research, and that work is currently underway to establish the validity of the theory scientifically. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Invisible Computing

Putting information processing in its place

With each passing year, computers become faster and more powerful, not to mention smaller, cheaper, and more stylish. But whether they are becoming easier to use is a matter of considerable debate. On the one hand you have technology pundits who point out that Mac OS X is a great leap forward in usability from Mac OS 9 or that Windows XP makes computing a lot simpler than Windows 2000 did. I don’t dispute those claims, as far as they go. But on the other side of the debate you have people complaining—rightly so—that improvements in computers have not resulted in shorter work weeks or reduced stress. We spend more time per day in front of our computers now than ever before, and on the whole, this time is not relaxing or fulfilling. And although operating systems have matured and improved, the range of activities we’re expected to be able to perform using computers, and the complexity of individual tasks, have increased tremendously. The net result is that computers require an increasing amount of our time, money, and attention—valuable resources most of us would like to use elsewhere.

It’s Not the Mousetrap, It’s the Mouse
In the world of computer software, in which I’ve worked for many years, the solution to the problem of computer complexity is always assumed to be improving the user interface. If an activity currently requires three mouse clicks, change it so that it only takes one. If text on the screen is too confusing, replace it with a picture. If a menu contains too many commands, group them into smaller lists. And so on. These are all important and worthwhile steps, and I’ve spent a lot of time and effort learning about the principles of good user interface design. But when all is said and done, this is an inadequate solution to the problem. You may have, for example, the slickest and easiest-to-use disk repair utility in the world, but a more fundamental problem is that you need to use such a tool in the first place. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Milk in a Box

Losing the bottle

I’ve managed to suppress most of the memories of my college days—quite wisely, I think—but every once in a while some random factoid springs to mind. For example, I remember very clearly the wonder I felt one evening in the mid-1980s when I walked into a New Jersey supermarket and saw a box of milk on the shelf. At first I didn’t comprehend what I was looking at. I had to study the package at some length before I grasped that this was not powdered milk or some milk-like non-dairy product. Sitting there quite happily at room temperature was a container of milk that, so the label claimed, would remain fresh without refrigeration for months. I couldn’t figure out how they’d managed to pull this off, but I was very excited. Just think of the convenience of not having to buy milk every few days, not to mention saving space in your refrigerator! I bought a box and tried it. OK, the flavor was a bit less than fantastic, but still…pour it on some cereal or in your coffee and you’d never know the difference. This revolutionary development seemed so obviously useful to me that I was certain all milk would be sold this way within a couple of years.

Time passed. The boxes of milk, instead of multiplying on store shelves as I’d expected, disappeared almost entirely. I found this completely baffling. Why hadn’t this sort of milk caught on? I was even more surprised when I went to Europe and discovered that in many places, it’s much harder to find refrigerated milk than boxes or bottles of milk stored at room temperature. So clearly the technology to package milk this way was still in use…but did those Europeans know something that we didn’t? Or was it the other way around? I started wondering about this again recently and decided to investigate. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Mistpouffers

The mystery of phantom thunder

On a few evenings when we were living in San Francisco, we were startled to hear a long succession of enormously loud booming noises. We went outside to investigate. The sky was clear, we didn’t see any lights to suggest explosions, and everyone seemed to be going about their business without worrying about the strange sounds, so we presumed we were simply unaware of some normal occurrence. The source, on further investigation, turned out to be fireworks—sometimes they were coming from the baseball stadium to celebrate a Giants victory or Barry Bonds’s umpteenth home run; other times, we were hearing the KFOG Kaboom, an annual fireworks extravaganza put on by a popular radio station. What amazed us, though, was that the spots where these fireworks were being set off were miles away from us and over a hill—far enough that we couldn’t catch even a glimpse—and yet from the volume we would have thought they were going off right over our heads.

Today’s interesting thing is a phenomenon consisting of similarly mysterious booming noises, but without such a ready explanation. The most generic term I could find for such sounds is mistpouffers (spelled “mistpoeffers” in Belgium and the Netherlands). In various areas they go by such diverse terms as “Guns of the Seneca” (near Seneca Lake and Cayuga Lake in New York), “Barisal guns” (in Bangladesh), “uminari” (in Japan), “fog guns,” “lake guns,” and many others. In all these instances, the terms describe a sound or series of sounds that resemble loud but distant cannon fire, usually heard near the edge of a large body of water. The sounds occur when there are no storms in the vicinity that could produce thunder and no other obvious source. Sometimes they’re accompanied by a rumble that can be felt strongly enough to shake plates and hanging pictures; other times no vibration is felt. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Honey as Medicine

Sweet relief

When I get a sore throat, I always find a cup of tea with some honey very soothing. But thanks to my proper Western scientific conditioning, I always assumed that the restorative power of honey was mostly in my head. Sure, it tastes good and has a pleasant texture that coats my irritated throat, but it’s practically pure sugar, after all. What good could it possibly do me other than diminishing my perception of discomfort for a few minutes? So I’ve been content in my belief that honey is little more than a tasty placebo. Now, ironically enough, my convictions are being challenged, as researchers are turning up new evidence of honey’s medical benefits left and right.

Historically, honey has been used as a folk remedy in cultures around the world for millennia. It has been prescribed informally as a cure for smallpox, baldness, eye diseases, and indigestion. It’s even been used as a contraceptive. As with most natural “cures” unsupported by scientific studies, I sort of chuckle and sigh when I read about things like this—honey may be a silly substitute for real medicine, but at least it’s not bloodletting. However, in this case, the bees may have the last laugh. It turns out that honey’s properties make it a surprisingly effective cure-all. Or, let’s say, cure-much. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Girolle

One small step for cheese engineering

Switzerland is a country known for, among other things, cheese and engineering. These are two concepts that, while important individually, generally do not go together. (In fact, I have been wary of cheese engineering ever since I read The Absurdly Silly Encyclopedia and Fly Swatter by Jovial Bob Stine in 1978. It cautioned the young reader not to build a raft out of cheese, because cheese does not float.) Nevertheless, the great minds of Switzerland have produced a fascinating, interdependent pairing of cheese and machine, neither of which is complete without the other. As both a cheese lover and a gadget lover, I was delighted to discover a unique device called a Girolle. It’s the world’s most clever cheese slicer, and it’s designed to work with just one very special kind of cheese.

Not Your Father’s Cheese
Growing up in the United States, I was conditioned to think of cheese as an ingredient or a topping, not as an independent food. Macaroni and cheese, cheeseburgers, cheese pizza, cheese puffs, and Parmesan sprinkled on spaghetti—these were cheese to me. I turned up my nose at sliced cheese served on a cracker, which seemed unnatural. Everyone knew that the cheese on your cracker was supposed to have been squirted out of a can. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Mead

The prototypical alcoholic beverage

The first time I went to a Renaissance fair, I didn’t quite know what to expect. I understood from the ads that there would be jousting, music, crafts, and people walking around in period clothing, but that’s about it. In theory, a Renaissance fair is supposed to be a re-creation of 15th-century England. That sounded interesting, but I wasn’t entirely sure what it meant. As I explored the fairgrounds, playing primitive arcade games, sampling the crafts, and watching the shows, I was alternately delighted and annoyed by the ubiquitous displays of pseudoauthenticity. I smiled when a guy walked up to me and, wanting to know the time, asked “How stands the hour?” but just rolled my eyes every time I saw a merchant with a sign that read “Master Card and Lady Visa welcome here.” Everyone seemed to speak faux Shakespeare. Those in costume wore custom-made boots that looked believable until you saw the Vibram soles. And everything, of course, had a commercial gimmick. But no matter—it was still great fun.

It was not long before I turned my attention to acquiring some authentic Renaissance food. The roasted turkey legs were quite popular, as was corn on the cob—both believable as period foods. I tried something called a “Scottish Egg,” which was a hard-boiled egg, rolled in batter, covered with ground pork, and deep-fried. Appalling—they might as well have called it Death on a Stick—but delicious. And of course, I needed something to wash all this down with. I couldn’t possibly bring myself to buy a Coke or a Budweiser (both readily available), so I looked for the most authentic-sounding drink I could find. Sure enough, some of the vendors were selling mead. All I knew was the name—I had no idea what was in it or what it tasted like—but I proffered my gold (card) and got a nice authentic plastic cup full of a pale yellow liquid. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

French Butter Dishes

Fresh butter without refrigeration

A few years ago, when Interesting Thing of the Day was just a gleam in my eye, I started asking people for their ideas on interesting topics I should write about. One of my wife’s friends made the very first suggestion. “You should write about French butter dishes,” she said, “—you know, the kind that keep butter fresh without refrigeration.” I had no idea what she was talking about, but I wrote it down on my list anyway. After unsuccessfully trying to locate one of these things in France, I did a few Web searches and sure enough, French butter dishes—like the one now in my kitchen—are quite interesting.

The idea behind French butter dishes is pure, ingenious simplicity. Butter at room temperature quickly turns rancid when exposed to oxygen, so the usual means of preserving it is to store it in the refrigerator. But all that’s really needed is to keep air away from the butter. A French butter dish does this by using water to form a seal between the butter and the air. There are two parts to the dish: a smaller, bell- or cone-shaped piece that sits on a wide base, and a second, larger container. You fill the bell up with butter, put water in the larger container, and invert the bell into the water. Because butter is basically an oil, it won’t mix with the water, and as long as it’s not too hot, it will remain sticky enough to stay inside the bell. You can keep this on your kitchen table so that butter is always available without having to soften it. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Raclette

The cheese that eats like a meal

The term cheesy in English can, and sometimes does, mean “containing cheese.” More often, however, it’s used to mean “cheap,” “shoddy,” or “culturally infelicitous.” Sometimes these two meanings come together, typically in reference to a ’70s-style electric fondue pot. Raise your hand if there’s one in your cupboard that you received as a gift and haven’t used in at least two years. That appears to be…yep, pretty much all of us. OK, put your hand back down; you’ll need it to scroll. But please, for a moment, set aside any prejudice you may have about Swiss tabletop cheese-melting devices. Today I’d like to tell you about another one that is both more (in the good sense) and less (in the bad sense) cheesy.

In Switzerland, the trains run on time—thanks, no doubt, to the seriousness with which the population treats clocks and watches. In much the same way, the Swiss take cheese extremely seriously. There is no such thing as “Swiss cheese” in the sense that Americans think of it—American Swiss cheese is a pale knockoff of Emmenthal, just one of hundreds of varieties of cheese produced by Switzerland’s numerous (and apparently quite happy) cows. And for some of these cheeses, only one method of serving is considered appropriate—Tête de Moine must be shaved on a Girolle; Gruyère is typically melted in a fondue pot. But there’s another type of cheese that requires an exacting preparation ritual, though it’s little known in North America. The cheese is called raclette—a semi-soft, off-white, fairly mild cheese that melts extremely well. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Saturna Island

Less is more (interesting)

I have a special fondness for contradiction—or more accurately, contrariety—the apparent not-going-together of things I like or believe equally. Read enough of these articles and the theme of paradox will be quite evident. For example, I love living in the city, and can’t imagine being without the energy, resources, and constant stimulation it provides. But I could say with equal conviction that I’m happiest when I’m far away from people, noise, and chaos, immersed in the solitude of nature. As a result, when planning a vacation, I’m never quite sure whether I want to “get away from it all” or experience the novelty and adventure of another urban area. Las Vegas, New York, and Paris are among my favorite places to visit; on the other hand, I also enjoy a meditative retreat, a long weekend in the desert, or a lazy trip through the countryside of Provence. But my very favorite place to go for peace and quiet is Saturna Island.

Just Across the Strait
Perhaps I should begin with a quick geography lesson. British Columbia is Canada’s westernmost province. Its largest city, Vancouver (where I lived for three years), is on the Pacific coast, just a few hours’ drive north of Seattle. Not far off the coast—about an hour and a half by ferry—is Vancouver Island, an immense piece of land with an area about the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined. On Vancouver Island you’ll find Victoria, the capital city of British Columbia, and about three-quarters of a million people. The stretch of ocean between the mainland and Vancouver Island is known as the Georgia Strait, and scattered along the 300-mile (483km) length of the strait are hundreds of smaller islands, only a handful of which are inhabited. The Gulf Islands, as they are called, have all the natural beauty typical of the Pacific Northwest, and a much more relaxed pace of life than the big cities. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Curling

Throwing stones for fun and profit

With apologies and all due respect to my Canadian friends and relatives, I have never had the remotest interest in hockey. I’ve tried to watch it a few times, but always found it tedious and hard to follow. Even though the pace of the game is often frantic, there is typically a lot of time between goals, during which I can rarely tell where the puck actually is. Where confrontations between players seem to be the most exciting part of the game for many fans, I don’t enjoy watching people knock each other around. There is, however, another popular Canadian sport that involves sliding objects around on ice: curling. Unlike hockey, curling moves at a fairly slow pace and doesn’t require protective gear.

Stones Without Sticks
When I first heard a description of curling, it sounded too weird and dull to attract my interest. But the first time I saw curling on TV, I had a revelation. “Oh,” I thought, “it’s just like boules on ice.” There is a class of games, including lawn bowling, bocce, boules, shuffleboard, and (in some cases) marbles, that all have the same basic idea in common. Taking turns, competitors launch (throw, roll, or slide) a projectile (ball or puck) toward a target. After several rounds, the player or team with the projectile closest to the target wins; a large part of the strategy is displacing your opponent’s projectiles while protecting your own. I don’t have a name for this general type of game, but once I realized curling fit into this familiar category, I warmed to it considerably. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Temperate Rain Forests

Trees of life

If you ask the average person to name any three countries that have rain forests, chances are their minds will jump to tropical regions—Central and South America, equatorial Africa, or the islands of southeast Asia. Most people would not include, say, Canada on their lists, because as everyone knows, rain forests are consistently hot places. And this is exactly what I always believed too. Several years ago when I was living in Canada, my wife, Morgen, mentioned in passing, “Oh, we’ve got rain forests here.” And I thought: “Yeah, right. And deserts too. What else did Santa Claus tell you?” But it seems Mr. Kringle was right after all. Canada does indeed have rain forests—just not of the tropical variety, which was the only kind I had ever heard of. (As a matter of fact, there are also deserts in Canada…but that’s a story for another day.)

Moisten and Seal
The main thing that determines whether a forest should be considered a rain forest is the amount of rainfall it receives—generally, the threshold is about 100 inches (2.5m) per year. This high moisture content—concentrated still further into fog by the leaves that form the canopy—encourages the heavy growth of plants, which in turn support animal life. When evergreen forests appear along the coast of a landmass with mountains on the other side, the mountains tend to trap the moist air blowing in from the sea, producing an unusually heavy rainfall in the forest. Voilà: rain forest. Such conditions exist in several parts of the world, including the west coast of North America (from Alaska as far south as northern California), the west coast of Chile, parts of Tasmania and New Zealand, and even a small patch of Norway. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Vienna Vegetable Orchestra

Grooves from the garden

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

The 20th-century American composer John Cage was well known for his experimental approach to making music. His most famous composition, titled 4’33” (four minutes and 33 seconds), playfully widens the boundaries of what is considered music. The piece consists of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of structured silence (although it was written to be performed for any length of time), during which time listeners are drawn to discover the ambient sounds going on all around them.

This idea that music can be found in unlikely circumstances has resonated in the works of other composers who followed Cage. In a similar, but unique vein, a group known as the Vienna Vegetable Orchestra, or more simply the Vegetable Orchestra, creates music from an unlikely source: fresh vegetables. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Capilano Suspension Bridge

Vancouver from another point of view

Every time I mention to someone that I spent three years living in Vancouver, British Columbia, I get the same response. “Oh, I’ve heard Vancouver is such a beautiful city. I’d love to visit there some time.” Dozens of people have said the same thing to me, almost as if reciting a line from an advertising campaign. And it’s true: Vancouver is a beautiful city—whether you’re talking about the mountains, forests, and ocean or the glistening modern skyline of glass skyscrapers. There’s a reason so many films and TV shows are shot on location in and around Vancouver. If it’s scenery you want, this is the place. Vancouver, like any other large Canadian city, also has plenty of cultural depth—an excellent symphony orchestra, live theater, cinema, folk music, improv comedy, professional sports, and museums of every kind. There are major universities, large industries, and rich natural resources, not to mention a vibrant multi-ethnic population. In short, no one needs an excuse to visit Vancouver. There are so many things to do and see there that it’s a compelling tourist destination; undoubtedly this figured in the city’s successful bid to host the 2010 winter Olympics.

The Draw of the Bridge
Having said that, I was shocked and baffled to learn that the most popular tourist attraction in the city—nay, in the entire province—is a footbridge. Incredible but true: each year over 800,000 people pay to walk across the Capilano Suspension Bridge. Now it is indeed quite a nice bridge, as suspension footbridges go. Strung high above the scenic Capilano River, it offers a lovely view. And it’s an impressive feat of engineering too (about which more in a moment). But of all the things that might attract a visitor to the southwestern corner of mainland British Columbia, the enormous appeal of this bridge has always seemed quite strange to me. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Microclimates

Don’t like the weather? Cross the street.

I have lived in many different parts of North America, but for the past decade or so, all of the places I’ve lived have been on the west coast, no more than a few miles from the ocean. There are many things to like about the west coast, but I’m especially fond of the weather. Each city has its specialty—San Diego is famous for sun, San Francisco for fog, and Vancouver for rain. But what this entire strip of land has in common is a relatively temperate climate year-round. Summers are rarely hot, and snow is almost unheard of. Some of my friends complain about the lack of seasonal variation, but not me. I figure, I can go and visit the snow or the sun for a week or two every year if I really miss it—and that’s enough for me.

Besides, we do have seasons, just not the same kinds of seasons as the rest of the continent. Here in San Francisco, the months of June through August are usually cool, especially near the ocean; the hottest month is October. Tourists invariably get this wrong, shivering in shorts in the summer and sweating in the fall. But our generally mild climate has another interesting twist that makes it difficult for me to give a meaningful answer when someone from another part of the world asks me how the weather is. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Six Degrees of Separation

Is it a small world after all?

At family reunions, my mother used to joke about the fact that actress Shirley Jones (of “The Partridge Family” fame) never showed up. Apparently someone had figured out that Jones was a distant relation by marriage, and more than once I heard of plans by one of my cousins to invite her to a reunion just for fun. Whether an invitation was ever actually sent I don’t know, nor can I recall the exact chain of relatives that supposedly connected me to Jones. But I always enjoyed the thought of being related, however distantly, to a celebrity. I imagined showing up at a dinner or award ceremony where I’d be introduced to the rich and famous: “This is Joe Kissell, my third cousin-in-law, once removed.” I didn’t suspect it at the time, but if a prominent sociological theory is correct, I may have indirect social connections to millions or even billions of people.

The theory in question, of course, is that of “Six Degrees of Separation”—roughly, the notion that anyone can form a chain of personal contacts leading to any other person, with no more than six links in the chain. Nearly everyone has heard of this idea, thanks to John Guare’s 1990 play “Six Degrees of Separation” and the “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” game that became popular in the late 1990s. But what many people don’t realize is that this game has its roots in serious sociological research, and that work is currently underway to establish the validity of the theory scientifically. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Invisible Computing

Putting information processing in its place

With each passing year, computers become faster and more powerful, not to mention smaller, cheaper, and more stylish. But whether they are becoming easier to use is a matter of considerable debate. On the one hand you have technology pundits who point out that Mac OS X is a great leap forward in usability from Mac OS 9 or that Windows XP makes computing a lot simpler than Windows 2000 did. I don’t dispute those claims, as far as they go. But on the other side of the debate you have people complaining—rightly so—that improvements in computers have not resulted in shorter work weeks or reduced stress. We spend more time per day in front of our computers now than ever before, and on the whole, this time is not relaxing or fulfilling. And although operating systems have matured and improved, the range of activities we’re expected to be able to perform using computers, and the complexity of individual tasks, have increased tremendously. The net result is that computers require an increasing amount of our time, money, and attention—valuable resources most of us would like to use elsewhere.

It’s Not the Mousetrap, It’s the Mouse
In the world of computer software, in which I’ve worked for many years, the solution to the problem of computer complexity is always assumed to be improving the user interface. If an activity currently requires three mouse clicks, change it so that it only takes one. If text on the screen is too confusing, replace it with a picture. If a menu contains too many commands, group them into smaller lists. And so on. These are all important and worthwhile steps, and I’ve spent a lot of time and effort learning about the principles of good user interface design. But when all is said and done, this is an inadequate solution to the problem. You may have, for example, the slickest and easiest-to-use disk repair utility in the world, but a more fundamental problem is that you need to use such a tool in the first place. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Milk in a Box

Losing the bottle

I’ve managed to suppress most of the memories of my college days—quite wisely, I think—but every once in a while some random factoid springs to mind. For example, I remember very clearly the wonder I felt one evening in the mid-1980s when I walked into a New Jersey supermarket and saw a box of milk on the shelf. At first I didn’t comprehend what I was looking at. I had to study the package at some length before I grasped that this was not powdered milk or some milk-like non-dairy product. Sitting there quite happily at room temperature was a container of milk that, so the label claimed, would remain fresh without refrigeration for months. I couldn’t figure out how they’d managed to pull this off, but I was very excited. Just think of the convenience of not having to buy milk every few days, not to mention saving space in your refrigerator! I bought a box and tried it. OK, the flavor was a bit less than fantastic, but still…pour it on some cereal or in your coffee and you’d never know the difference. This revolutionary development seemed so obviously useful to me that I was certain all milk would be sold this way within a couple of years.

Time passed. The boxes of milk, instead of multiplying on store shelves as I’d expected, disappeared almost entirely. I found this completely baffling. Why hadn’t this sort of milk caught on? I was even more surprised when I went to Europe and discovered that in many places, it’s much harder to find refrigerated milk than boxes or bottles of milk stored at room temperature. So clearly the technology to package milk this way was still in use…but did those Europeans know something that we didn’t? Or was it the other way around? I started wondering about this again recently and decided to investigate. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Mistpouffers

The mystery of phantom thunder

On a few evenings when we were living in San Francisco, we were startled to hear a long succession of enormously loud booming noises. We went outside to investigate. The sky was clear, we didn’t see any lights to suggest explosions, and everyone seemed to be going about their business without worrying about the strange sounds, so we presumed we were simply unaware of some normal occurrence. The source, on further investigation, turned out to be fireworks—sometimes they were coming from the baseball stadium to celebrate a Giants victory or Barry Bonds’s umpteenth home run; other times, we were hearing the KFOG Kaboom, an annual fireworks extravaganza put on by a popular radio station. What amazed us, though, was that the spots where these fireworks were being set off were miles away from us and over a hill—far enough that we couldn’t catch even a glimpse—and yet from the volume we would have thought they were going off right over our heads.

Today’s interesting thing is a phenomenon consisting of similarly mysterious booming noises, but without such a ready explanation. The most generic term I could find for such sounds is mistpouffers (spelled “mistpoeffers” in Belgium and the Netherlands). In various areas they go by such diverse terms as “Guns of the Seneca” (near Seneca Lake and Cayuga Lake in New York), “Barisal guns” (in Bangladesh), “uminari” (in Japan), “fog guns,” “lake guns,” and many others. In all these instances, the terms describe a sound or series of sounds that resemble loud but distant cannon fire, usually heard near the edge of a large body of water. The sounds occur when there are no storms in the vicinity that could produce thunder and no other obvious source. Sometimes they’re accompanied by a rumble that can be felt strongly enough to shake plates and hanging pictures; other times no vibration is felt. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Honey as Medicine

Sweet relief

When I get a sore throat, I always find a cup of tea with some honey very soothing. But thanks to my proper Western scientific conditioning, I always assumed that the restorative power of honey was mostly in my head. Sure, it tastes good and has a pleasant texture that coats my irritated throat, but it’s practically pure sugar, after all. What good could it possibly do me other than diminishing my perception of discomfort for a few minutes? So I’ve been content in my belief that honey is little more than a tasty placebo. Now, ironically enough, my convictions are being challenged, as researchers are turning up new evidence of honey’s medical benefits left and right.

Historically, honey has been used as a folk remedy in cultures around the world for millennia. It has been prescribed informally as a cure for smallpox, baldness, eye diseases, and indigestion. It’s even been used as a contraceptive. As with most natural “cures” unsupported by scientific studies, I sort of chuckle and sigh when I read about things like this—honey may be a silly substitute for real medicine, but at least it’s not bloodletting. However, in this case, the bees may have the last laugh. It turns out that honey’s properties make it a surprisingly effective cure-all. Or, let’s say, cure-much. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Girolle

One small step for cheese engineering

Switzerland is a country known for, among other things, cheese and engineering. These are two concepts that, while important individually, generally do not go together. (In fact, I have been wary of cheese engineering ever since I read The Absurdly Silly Encyclopedia and Fly Swatter by Jovial Bob Stine in 1978. It cautioned the young reader not to build a raft out of cheese, because cheese does not float.) Nevertheless, the great minds of Switzerland have produced a fascinating, interdependent pairing of cheese and machine, neither of which is complete without the other. As both a cheese lover and a gadget lover, I was delighted to discover a unique device called a Girolle. It’s the world’s most clever cheese slicer, and it’s designed to work with just one very special kind of cheese.

Not Your Father’s Cheese
Growing up in the United States, I was conditioned to think of cheese as an ingredient or a topping, not as an independent food. Macaroni and cheese, cheeseburgers, cheese pizza, cheese puffs, and Parmesan sprinkled on spaghetti—these were cheese to me. I turned up my nose at sliced cheese served on a cracker, which seemed unnatural. Everyone knew that the cheese on your cracker was supposed to have been squirted out of a can. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Mead

The prototypical alcoholic beverage

The first time I went to a Renaissance fair, I didn’t quite know what to expect. I understood from the ads that there would be jousting, music, crafts, and people walking around in period clothing, but that’s about it. In theory, a Renaissance fair is supposed to be a re-creation of 15th-century England. That sounded interesting, but I wasn’t entirely sure what it meant. As I explored the fairgrounds, playing primitive arcade games, sampling the crafts, and watching the shows, I was alternately delighted and annoyed by the ubiquitous displays of pseudoauthenticity. I smiled when a guy walked up to me and, wanting to know the time, asked “How stands the hour?” but just rolled my eyes every time I saw a merchant with a sign that read “Master Card and Lady Visa welcome here.” Everyone seemed to speak faux Shakespeare. Those in costume wore custom-made boots that looked believable until you saw the Vibram soles. And everything, of course, had a commercial gimmick. But no matter—it was still great fun.

It was not long before I turned my attention to acquiring some authentic Renaissance food. The roasted turkey legs were quite popular, as was corn on the cob—both believable as period foods. I tried something called a “Scottish Egg,” which was a hard-boiled egg, rolled in batter, covered with ground pork, and deep-fried. Appalling—they might as well have called it Death on a Stick—but delicious. And of course, I needed something to wash all this down with. I couldn’t possibly bring myself to buy a Coke or a Budweiser (both readily available), so I looked for the most authentic-sounding drink I could find. Sure enough, some of the vendors were selling mead. All I knew was the name—I had no idea what was in it or what it tasted like—but I proffered my gold (card) and got a nice authentic plastic cup full of a pale yellow liquid. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

French Butter Dishes

Fresh butter without refrigeration

A few years ago, when Interesting Thing of the Day was just a gleam in my eye, I started asking people for their ideas on interesting topics I should write about. One of my wife’s friends made the very first suggestion. “You should write about French butter dishes,” she said, “—you know, the kind that keep butter fresh without refrigeration.” I had no idea what she was talking about, but I wrote it down on my list anyway. After unsuccessfully trying to locate one of these things in France, I did a few Web searches and sure enough, French butter dishes—like the one now in my kitchen—are quite interesting.

The idea behind French butter dishes is pure, ingenious simplicity. Butter at room temperature quickly turns rancid when exposed to oxygen, so the usual means of preserving it is to store it in the refrigerator. But all that’s really needed is to keep air away from the butter. A French butter dish does this by using water to form a seal between the butter and the air. There are two parts to the dish: a smaller, bell- or cone-shaped piece that sits on a wide base, and a second, larger container. You fill the bell up with butter, put water in the larger container, and invert the bell into the water. Because butter is basically an oil, it won’t mix with the water, and as long as it’s not too hot, it will remain sticky enough to stay inside the bell. You can keep this on your kitchen table so that butter is always available without having to soften it. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Raclette

The cheese that eats like a meal

The term cheesy in English can, and sometimes does, mean “containing cheese.” More often, however, it’s used to mean “cheap,” “shoddy,” or “culturally infelicitous.” Sometimes these two meanings come together, typically in reference to a ’70s-style electric fondue pot. Raise your hand if there’s one in your cupboard that you received as a gift and haven’t used in at least two years. That appears to be…yep, pretty much all of us. OK, put your hand back down; you’ll need it to scroll. But please, for a moment, set aside any prejudice you may have about Swiss tabletop cheese-melting devices. Today I’d like to tell you about another one that is both more (in the good sense) and less (in the bad sense) cheesy.

In Switzerland, the trains run on time—thanks, no doubt, to the seriousness with which the population treats clocks and watches. In much the same way, the Swiss take cheese extremely seriously. There is no such thing as “Swiss cheese” in the sense that Americans think of it—American Swiss cheese is a pale knockoff of Emmenthal, just one of hundreds of varieties of cheese produced by Switzerland’s numerous (and apparently quite happy) cows. And for some of these cheeses, only one method of serving is considered appropriate—Tête de Moine must be shaved on a Girolle; Gruyère is typically melted in a fondue pot. But there’s another type of cheese that requires an exacting preparation ritual, though it’s little known in North America. The cheese is called raclette—a semi-soft, off-white, fairly mild cheese that melts extremely well. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Vienna Vegetable Orchestra

Grooves from the garden

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

The 20th-century American composer John Cage was well known for his experimental approach to making music. His most famous composition, titled 4’33” (four minutes and 33 seconds), playfully widens the boundaries of what is considered music. The piece consists of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of structured silence (although it was written to be performed for any length of time), during which time listeners are drawn to discover the ambient sounds going on all around them.

This idea that music can be found in unlikely circumstances has resonated in the works of other composers who followed Cage. In a similar, but unique vein, a group known as the Vienna Vegetable Orchestra, or more simply the Vegetable Orchestra, creates music from an unlikely source: fresh vegetables. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Mistpouffers

The mystery of phantom thunder

On a few evenings when we were living in San Francisco, we were startled to hear a long succession of enormously loud booming noises. We went outside to investigate. The sky was clear, we didn’t see any lights to suggest explosions, and everyone seemed to be going about their business without worrying about the strange sounds, so we presumed we were simply unaware of some normal occurrence. The source, on further investigation, turned out to be fireworks—sometimes they were coming from the baseball stadium to celebrate a Giants victory or Barry Bonds’s umpteenth home run; other times, we were hearing the KFOG Kaboom, an annual fireworks extravaganza put on by a popular radio station. What amazed us, though, was that the spots where these fireworks were being set off were miles away from us and over a hill—far enough that we couldn’t catch even a glimpse—and yet from the volume we would have thought they were going off right over our heads.

Today’s interesting thing is a phenomenon consisting of similarly mysterious booming noises, but without such a ready explanation. The most generic term I could find for such sounds is mistpouffers (spelled “mistpoeffers” in Belgium and the Netherlands). In various areas they go by such diverse terms as “Guns of the Seneca” (near Seneca Lake and Cayuga Lake in New York), “Barisal guns” (in Bangladesh), “uminari” (in Japan), “fog guns,” “lake guns,” and many others. In all these instances, the terms describe a sound or series of sounds that resemble loud but distant cannon fire, usually heard near the edge of a large body of water. The sounds occur when there are no storms in the vicinity that could produce thunder and no other obvious source. Sometimes they’re accompanied by a rumble that can be felt strongly enough to shake plates and hanging pictures; other times no vibration is felt. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Saturna Island

Less is more (interesting)

I have a special fondness for contradiction—or more accurately, contrariety—the apparent not-going-together of things I like or believe equally. Read enough of these articles and the theme of paradox will be quite evident. For example, I love living in the city, and can’t imagine being without the energy, resources, and constant stimulation it provides. But I could say with equal conviction that I’m happiest when I’m far away from people, noise, and chaos, immersed in the solitude of nature. As a result, when planning a vacation, I’m never quite sure whether I want to “get away from it all” or experience the novelty and adventure of another urban area. Las Vegas, New York, and Paris are among my favorite places to visit; on the other hand, I also enjoy a meditative retreat, a long weekend in the desert, or a lazy trip through the countryside of Provence. But my very favorite place to go for peace and quiet is Saturna Island.

Just Across the Strait
Perhaps I should begin with a quick geography lesson. British Columbia is Canada’s westernmost province. Its largest city, Vancouver (where I lived for three years), is on the Pacific coast, just a few hours’ drive north of Seattle. Not far off the coast—about an hour and a half by ferry—is Vancouver Island, an immense piece of land with an area about the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined. On Vancouver Island you’ll find Victoria, the capital city of British Columbia, and about three-quarters of a million people. The stretch of ocean between the mainland and Vancouver Island is known as the Georgia Strait, and scattered along the 300-mile (483km) length of the strait are hundreds of smaller islands, only a handful of which are inhabited. The Gulf Islands, as they are called, have all the natural beauty typical of the Pacific Northwest, and a much more relaxed pace of life than the big cities. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Curling

Throwing stones for fun and profit

With apologies and all due respect to my Canadian friends and relatives, I have never had the remotest interest in hockey. I’ve tried to watch it a few times, but always found it tedious and hard to follow. Even though the pace of the game is often frantic, there is typically a lot of time between goals, during which I can rarely tell where the puck actually is. Where confrontations between players seem to be the most exciting part of the game for many fans, I don’t enjoy watching people knock each other around. There is, however, another popular Canadian sport that involves sliding objects around on ice: curling. Unlike hockey, curling moves at a fairly slow pace and doesn’t require protective gear.

Stones Without Sticks
When I first heard a description of curling, it sounded too weird and dull to attract my interest. But the first time I saw curling on TV, I had a revelation. “Oh,” I thought, “it’s just like boules on ice.” There is a class of games, including lawn bowling, bocce, boules, shuffleboard, and (in some cases) marbles, that all have the same basic idea in common. Taking turns, competitors launch (throw, roll, or slide) a projectile (ball or puck) toward a target. After several rounds, the player or team with the projectile closest to the target wins; a large part of the strategy is displacing your opponent’s projectiles while protecting your own. I don’t have a name for this general type of game, but once I realized curling fit into this familiar category, I warmed to it considerably. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Temperate Rain Forests

Trees of life

If you ask the average person to name any three countries that have rain forests, chances are their minds will jump to tropical regions—Central and South America, equatorial Africa, or the islands of southeast Asia. Most people would not include, say, Canada on their lists, because as everyone knows, rain forests are consistently hot places. And this is exactly what I always believed too. Several years ago when I was living in Canada, my wife, Morgen, mentioned in passing, “Oh, we’ve got rain forests here.” And I thought: “Yeah, right. And deserts too. What else did Santa Claus tell you?” But it seems Mr. Kringle was right after all. Canada does indeed have rain forests—just not of the tropical variety, which was the only kind I had ever heard of. (As a matter of fact, there are also deserts in Canada…but that’s a story for another day.)

Moisten and Seal
The main thing that determines whether a forest should be considered a rain forest is the amount of rainfall it receives—generally, the threshold is about 100 inches (2.5m) per year. This high moisture content—concentrated still further into fog by the leaves that form the canopy—encourages the heavy growth of plants, which in turn support animal life. When evergreen forests appear along the coast of a landmass with mountains on the other side, the mountains tend to trap the moist air blowing in from the sea, producing an unusually heavy rainfall in the forest. Voilà: rain forest. Such conditions exist in several parts of the world, including the west coast of North America (from Alaska as far south as northern California), the west coast of Chile, parts of Tasmania and New Zealand, and even a small patch of Norway. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Capilano Suspension Bridge

Vancouver from another point of view

Every time I mention to someone that I spent three years living in Vancouver, British Columbia, I get the same response. “Oh, I’ve heard Vancouver is such a beautiful city. I’d love to visit there some time.” Dozens of people have said the same thing to me, almost as if reciting a line from an advertising campaign. And it’s true: Vancouver is a beautiful city—whether you’re talking about the mountains, forests, and ocean or the glistening modern skyline of glass skyscrapers. There’s a reason so many films and TV shows are shot on location in and around Vancouver. If it’s scenery you want, this is the place. Vancouver, like any other large Canadian city, also has plenty of cultural depth—an excellent symphony orchestra, live theater, cinema, folk music, improv comedy, professional sports, and museums of every kind. There are major universities, large industries, and rich natural resources, not to mention a vibrant multi-ethnic population. In short, no one needs an excuse to visit Vancouver. There are so many things to do and see there that it’s a compelling tourist destination; undoubtedly this figured in the city’s successful bid to host the 2010 winter Olympics.

The Draw of the Bridge
Having said that, I was shocked and baffled to learn that the most popular tourist attraction in the city—nay, in the entire province—is a footbridge. Incredible but true: each year over 800,000 people pay to walk across the Capilano Suspension Bridge. Now it is indeed quite a nice bridge, as suspension footbridges go. Strung high above the scenic Capilano River, it offers a lovely view. And it’s an impressive feat of engineering too (about which more in a moment). But of all the things that might attract a visitor to the southwestern corner of mainland British Columbia, the enormous appeal of this bridge has always seemed quite strange to me. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Microclimates

Don’t like the weather? Cross the street.

I have lived in many different parts of North America, but for the past decade or so, all of the places I’ve lived have been on the west coast, no more than a few miles from the ocean. There are many things to like about the west coast, but I’m especially fond of the weather. Each city has its specialty—San Diego is famous for sun, San Francisco for fog, and Vancouver for rain. But what this entire strip of land has in common is a relatively temperate climate year-round. Summers are rarely hot, and snow is almost unheard of. Some of my friends complain about the lack of seasonal variation, but not me. I figure, I can go and visit the snow or the sun for a week or two every year if I really miss it—and that’s enough for me.

Besides, we do have seasons, just not the same kinds of seasons as the rest of the continent. Here in San Francisco, the months of June through August are usually cool, especially near the ocean; the hottest month is October. Tourists invariably get this wrong, shivering in shorts in the summer and sweating in the fall. But our generally mild climate has another interesting twist that makes it difficult for me to give a meaningful answer when someone from another part of the world asks me how the weather is. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Six Degrees of Separation

Is it a small world after all?

At family reunions, my mother used to joke about the fact that actress Shirley Jones (of “The Partridge Family” fame) never showed up. Apparently someone had figured out that Jones was a distant relation by marriage, and more than once I heard of plans by one of my cousins to invite her to a reunion just for fun. Whether an invitation was ever actually sent I don’t know, nor can I recall the exact chain of relatives that supposedly connected me to Jones. But I always enjoyed the thought of being related, however distantly, to a celebrity. I imagined showing up at a dinner or award ceremony where I’d be introduced to the rich and famous: “This is Joe Kissell, my third cousin-in-law, once removed.” I didn’t suspect it at the time, but if a prominent sociological theory is correct, I may have indirect social connections to millions or even billions of people.

The theory in question, of course, is that of “Six Degrees of Separation”—roughly, the notion that anyone can form a chain of personal contacts leading to any other person, with no more than six links in the chain. Nearly everyone has heard of this idea, thanks to John Guare’s 1990 play “Six Degrees of Separation” and the “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” game that became popular in the late 1990s. But what many people don’t realize is that this game has its roots in serious sociological research, and that work is currently underway to establish the validity of the theory scientifically. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Invisible Computing

Putting information processing in its place

With each passing year, computers become faster and more powerful, not to mention smaller, cheaper, and more stylish. But whether they are becoming easier to use is a matter of considerable debate. On the one hand you have technology pundits who point out that Mac OS X is a great leap forward in usability from Mac OS 9 or that Windows XP makes computing a lot simpler than Windows 2000 did. I don’t dispute those claims, as far as they go. But on the other side of the debate you have people complaining—rightly so—that improvements in computers have not resulted in shorter work weeks or reduced stress. We spend more time per day in front of our computers now than ever before, and on the whole, this time is not relaxing or fulfilling. And although operating systems have matured and improved, the range of activities we’re expected to be able to perform using computers, and the complexity of individual tasks, have increased tremendously. The net result is that computers require an increasing amount of our time, money, and attention—valuable resources most of us would like to use elsewhere.

It’s Not the Mousetrap, It’s the Mouse
In the world of computer software, in which I’ve worked for many years, the solution to the problem of computer complexity is always assumed to be improving the user interface. If an activity currently requires three mouse clicks, change it so that it only takes one. If text on the screen is too confusing, replace it with a picture. If a menu contains too many commands, group them into smaller lists. And so on. These are all important and worthwhile steps, and I’ve spent a lot of time and effort learning about the principles of good user interface design. But when all is said and done, this is an inadequate solution to the problem. You may have, for example, the slickest and easiest-to-use disk repair utility in the world, but a more fundamental problem is that you need to use such a tool in the first place. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Milk in a Box

Losing the bottle

I’ve managed to suppress most of the memories of my college days—quite wisely, I think—but every once in a while some random factoid springs to mind. For example, I remember very clearly the wonder I felt one evening in the mid-1980s when I walked into a New Jersey supermarket and saw a box of milk on the shelf. At first I didn’t comprehend what I was looking at. I had to study the package at some length before I grasped that this was not powdered milk or some milk-like non-dairy product. Sitting there quite happily at room temperature was a container of milk that, so the label claimed, would remain fresh without refrigeration for months. I couldn’t figure out how they’d managed to pull this off, but I was very excited. Just think of the convenience of not having to buy milk every few days, not to mention saving space in your refrigerator! I bought a box and tried it. OK, the flavor was a bit less than fantastic, but still…pour it on some cereal or in your coffee and you’d never know the difference. This revolutionary development seemed so obviously useful to me that I was certain all milk would be sold this way within a couple of years.

Time passed. The boxes of milk, instead of multiplying on store shelves as I’d expected, disappeared almost entirely. I found this completely baffling. Why hadn’t this sort of milk caught on? I was even more surprised when I went to Europe and discovered that in many places, it’s much harder to find refrigerated milk than boxes or bottles of milk stored at room temperature. So clearly the technology to package milk this way was still in use…but did those Europeans know something that we didn’t? Or was it the other way around? I started wondering about this again recently and decided to investigate. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Honey as Medicine

Sweet relief

When I get a sore throat, I always find a cup of tea with some honey very soothing. But thanks to my proper Western scientific conditioning, I always assumed that the restorative power of honey was mostly in my head. Sure, it tastes good and has a pleasant texture that coats my irritated throat, but it’s practically pure sugar, after all. What good could it possibly do me other than diminishing my perception of discomfort for a few minutes? So I’ve been content in my belief that honey is little more than a tasty placebo. Now, ironically enough, my convictions are being challenged, as researchers are turning up new evidence of honey’s medical benefits left and right.

Historically, honey has been used as a folk remedy in cultures around the world for millennia. It has been prescribed informally as a cure for smallpox, baldness, eye diseases, and indigestion. It’s even been used as a contraceptive. As with most natural “cures” unsupported by scientific studies, I sort of chuckle and sigh when I read about things like this—honey may be a silly substitute for real medicine, but at least it’s not bloodletting. However, in this case, the bees may have the last laugh. It turns out that honey’s properties make it a surprisingly effective cure-all. Or, let’s say, cure-much. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Girolle

One small step for cheese engineering

Switzerland is a country known for, among other things, cheese and engineering. These are two concepts that, while important individually, generally do not go together. (In fact, I have been wary of cheese engineering ever since I read The Absurdly Silly Encyclopedia and Fly Swatter by Jovial Bob Stine in 1978. It cautioned the young reader not to build a raft out of cheese, because cheese does not float.) Nevertheless, the great minds of Switzerland have produced a fascinating, interdependent pairing of cheese and machine, neither of which is complete without the other. As both a cheese lover and a gadget lover, I was delighted to discover a unique device called a Girolle. It’s the world’s most clever cheese slicer, and it’s designed to work with just one very special kind of cheese.

Not Your Father’s Cheese
Growing up in the United States, I was conditioned to think of cheese as an ingredient or a topping, not as an independent food. Macaroni and cheese, cheeseburgers, cheese pizza, cheese puffs, and Parmesan sprinkled on spaghetti—these were cheese to me. I turned up my nose at sliced cheese served on a cracker, which seemed unnatural. Everyone knew that the cheese on your cracker was supposed to have been squirted out of a can. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Mead

The prototypical alcoholic beverage

The first time I went to a Renaissance fair, I didn’t quite know what to expect. I understood from the ads that there would be jousting, music, crafts, and people walking around in period clothing, but that’s about it. In theory, a Renaissance fair is supposed to be a re-creation of 15th-century England. That sounded interesting, but I wasn’t entirely sure what it meant. As I explored the fairgrounds, playing primitive arcade games, sampling the crafts, and watching the shows, I was alternately delighted and annoyed by the ubiquitous displays of pseudoauthenticity. I smiled when a guy walked up to me and, wanting to know the time, asked “How stands the hour?” but just rolled my eyes every time I saw a merchant with a sign that read “Master Card and Lady Visa welcome here.” Everyone seemed to speak faux Shakespeare. Those in costume wore custom-made boots that looked believable until you saw the Vibram soles. And everything, of course, had a commercial gimmick. But no matter—it was still great fun.

It was not long before I turned my attention to acquiring some authentic Renaissance food. The roasted turkey legs were quite popular, as was corn on the cob—both believable as period foods. I tried something called a “Scottish Egg,” which was a hard-boiled egg, rolled in batter, covered with ground pork, and deep-fried. Appalling—they might as well have called it Death on a Stick—but delicious. And of course, I needed something to wash all this down with. I couldn’t possibly bring myself to buy a Coke or a Budweiser (both readily available), so I looked for the most authentic-sounding drink I could find. Sure enough, some of the vendors were selling mead. All I knew was the name—I had no idea what was in it or what it tasted like—but I proffered my gold (card) and got a nice authentic plastic cup full of a pale yellow liquid. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

French Butter Dishes

Fresh butter without refrigeration

A few years ago, when Interesting Thing of the Day was just a gleam in my eye, I started asking people for their ideas on interesting topics I should write about. One of my wife’s friends made the very first suggestion. “You should write about French butter dishes,” she said, “—you know, the kind that keep butter fresh without refrigeration.” I had no idea what she was talking about, but I wrote it down on my list anyway. After unsuccessfully trying to locate one of these things in France, I did a few Web searches and sure enough, French butter dishes—like the one now in my kitchen—are quite interesting.

The idea behind French butter dishes is pure, ingenious simplicity. Butter at room temperature quickly turns rancid when exposed to oxygen, so the usual means of preserving it is to store it in the refrigerator. But all that’s really needed is to keep air away from the butter. A French butter dish does this by using water to form a seal between the butter and the air. There are two parts to the dish: a smaller, bell- or cone-shaped piece that sits on a wide base, and a second, larger container. You fill the bell up with butter, put water in the larger container, and invert the bell into the water. Because butter is basically an oil, it won’t mix with the water, and as long as it’s not too hot, it will remain sticky enough to stay inside the bell. You can keep this on your kitchen table so that butter is always available without having to soften it. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Raclette

The cheese that eats like a meal

The term cheesy in English can, and sometimes does, mean “containing cheese.” More often, however, it’s used to mean “cheap,” “shoddy,” or “culturally infelicitous.” Sometimes these two meanings come together, typically in reference to a ’70s-style electric fondue pot. Raise your hand if there’s one in your cupboard that you received as a gift and haven’t used in at least two years. That appears to be…yep, pretty much all of us. OK, put your hand back down; you’ll need it to scroll. But please, for a moment, set aside any prejudice you may have about Swiss tabletop cheese-melting devices. Today I’d like to tell you about another one that is both more (in the good sense) and less (in the bad sense) cheesy.

In Switzerland, the trains run on time—thanks, no doubt, to the seriousness with which the population treats clocks and watches. In much the same way, the Swiss take cheese extremely seriously. There is no such thing as “Swiss cheese” in the sense that Americans think of it—American Swiss cheese is a pale knockoff of Emmenthal, just one of hundreds of varieties of cheese produced by Switzerland’s numerous (and apparently quite happy) cows. And for some of these cheeses, only one method of serving is considered appropriate—Tête de Moine must be shaved on a Girolle; Gruyère is typically melted in a fondue pot. But there’s another type of cheese that requires an exacting preparation ritual, though it’s little known in North America. The cheese is called raclette—a semi-soft, off-white, fairly mild cheese that melts extremely well. [Article Continues…]

•••••

Archives

August 2007
December 2006
November 2006
September 2006
May 2005
April 2005
March 2005
February 2005
January 2005
December 2004
November 2004
October 2004
September 2004
August 2004
July 2004
June 2004