From the archives…

InterPlay

Getting grown-ups back into their bodies

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

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

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From the archives…

Parkour

Turning a city into an obstacle course

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

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

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From the archives…

Operation Migration

Follow that airplane!

The exact techniques migrating birds use to find their way across thousands of miles to exactly the same spots year after year are only partially understood. Watching for landmarks is clearly part of it—but equally clearly, it’s not the whole story. Certain types of birds have been shown to rely only minimally on vision, in some cases apparently getting their bearings from the Earth’s magnetic field. Be that as it may, some bird species have strong migratory instincts, while others (including geese, ducks, and cranes) must be taught the way to and from their winter homes. A single demonstration is enough to program the route into a bird’s memory, but what happens when a bird never gets that first demonstration? It has no idea where to go, and as a result, its survival is threatened if it can’t find enough food when the seasons change.

This situation poses a unique problem for certain birds raised in captivity, such as the whooping crane (Grus americana)—the tallest flying bird in North America, with a height of up to 5 feet (about 1.5m) and a wingspan as wide as 8 feet (about 2.5m). By the middle of the 20th century, the worldwide population of wild whooping cranes had dipped to only 15, bringing the species perilously close to extinction. (A century earlier, there had been about 1,400 of them—and even that was a dangerously small number.) As a result of diligent conservation efforts, those few remaining birds were protected in the wild, and their numbers gradually began to increase; today, that flock numbers about 200. Meanwhile, some of their eggs were hatched in captivity to breed a “backup” flock, in case some natural disaster (such as a hurricane) wiped out the others. After several years of careful breeding and release, a non-migratory flock of nearly 100 is now living in Florida. However, what everyone wanted to see was the reestablishment of another migratory flock—a group of whooping cranes that spent their summers in Wisconsin and their winters in Florida, just as other flocks had done decades earlier. But although the birds could be bred and released successfully, there was no apparent way to teach them a safe way to fly from one home to the other. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Portmanteau

When words intertwingle

One of the great things about language—any language, but I’m thinking especially of English—is how badly you can mangle it and still be understood. All spoken language has a certain amount of built-in redundancy, so you can figure out, for example, what would have come at the end of this sentence if I’d bothered to… And the same is true at the level of individual words. If I say “gonna” instead of “going to” or “kinda” instead of “kind of,” you’ll still know exactly what I’m trying to say.

What Isn’t in a Word
When I was studying linguistics, I ran across quite a few terms that refer, in one sense or another, to missing sounds (intentional or otherwise). Here are a few examples:

  • contraction: a word formed from two or more other words, as in isn’t from “is not” or it’s from “it has”< [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Passenger Pigeons

The great American extinction

I have a confession to make. Even though my wife, Morgen, is an endless fount of interesting topics, when she suggested that I write about passenger pigeons, my first reaction was a yawn. How interesting can pigeons be? There are bazillions of them out there—I practically trip over them walking down the sidewalk every day. “But passenger pigeons are extinct,” she said. So are lots of animals, and that’s very sad, but it still doesn’t make them particularly interesting to the general public. She kept insisting that no, really, this particular kind of extinct pigeon is truly fascinating, and I kept displaying a complete lack of enthusiasm. Finally, she started reading some facts off a Web page. After the first couple of items, I thought, “Yeah, OK, that’s a bit interesting, but if that’s all there is to it…” Only it wasn’t. She kept reading—and I kept saying “Wow.” Even I had to admit, yes, the story of the passenger pigeon is quite interesting. So by way of penance, allow me to present the poop (as it were) on passenger pigeons.

The last passenger pigeon in the world died less than 100 years ago—in 1914, according to most reports. In fact, we know exactly when and where the species went extinct: Tuesday, September 1, 1914, at 1:00 p.m. Eastern time at the Cincinnati Zoo. We even know the last bird’s name: Martha. She was 29 years old. It’s rather extraordinary that we should have such detailed and precise information about the moment when a species meets its demise—the passenger pigeon is almost certainly unique in that regard. What’s even more extraordinary is that just a century or so earlier, passenger pigeons had been more numerous than any other bird in North America—numbering in the billions. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Space Pens

What to use when your writing lacks gravity

For several years as a child, I was convinced that I would be an astronaut when I grew up. I loved everything having to do with space and rockets; I collected photographs and magazines about space travel; I begged my parents to take me to the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. when it opened in 1976, and of course I also watched Star Trek reruns religiously. There simply could be no other occupation worth pursuing, and nothing could dissuade me from my passionate desire to go into space. Well, maybe one thing. I was watching the TV coverage of some space launch or another. It followed the astronauts through all the preparations they underwent leading up to the mission. And before they got into the rocket, a doctor gave them shots of some kind. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Injections? Just to go into space? No way. I’d have to find a safer profession. And from that very moment I knew I’d never be an astronaut.

Pen-t Up Ambitions
Although my dream of traveling into space had met an untimely end, I was still extremely happy to watch other people do it, and I was particularly interested in the paraphernalia of space flight—the spacesuits, the computers, the freeze-dried meals, and so on. One day I was leafing through a catalog and I saw something that made my jaw drop: the Fisher Space Pen. “Just like the astronauts use!” it said. I was already drinking Tang, so that became my next object of desire. This pen, so the catalog said, would write in zero gravity—and, as a bonus, it could also write upside down, underwater, in a vacuum, on glossy paper, in extremely hot or cold environments, or even on greasy surfaces. And it was very shiny and futuristic-looking. Wow. I had to have one. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Optical Telegraphs

18th century wireless telecommunications

Let’s say you’re besieged by a bunch of Orcs and Nazgûl in some fictional city in the realm of Gondor. And let’s say your ancient allies from far away in the land of Rohan are your only faint hope for rescue. How might you call out for help over such a great distance, especially with a bunch of mountains between you and Rohan? You would ignite a large pile of firewood that has been waiting ready at the top of a tower for just such a purpose. And many miles away, on the top of the nearest mountain, a beacon-warden would notice this fire and light one of his own. And then the warden on the next mountain over would do the same thing, and so on, until seven mountains later, your friends saw the fire nearest them and got the message.

Tolkien mentioned this event only in passing on the opening page of his book The Return of the King, but Peter Jackson made it into a dramatic scene in his Oscar-winning 2003 film version of the story. It was a moving and visually stunning portrayal of a desperate plea for aid that, given the circumstances and technological resources available, could not have been conveyed in any other way. And if you understand this long-distance visual method of relaying information, you’ve grasped the basics of the optical telegraph, which predated the more commonly known electric telegraph by decades. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Murano Glass

The mirror of Venice

Several years ago, on our first trip to Europe, Morgen and I tried very hard to visit as many sites as possible on our “must-see” list, which meant very short stops and lots of travel time. Venice was one of those obligatory stops, and we were both very sad to leave after only a few days, during which we had managed to see just a tiny sliver of the city. I was impressed by the canals, the architecture, the churches, the museums, and the omnipresent music (everywhere we turned, some little chamber orchestra was playing Vivaldi)—as well as the friendly and accommodating locals. We had no real plan other than to wander around and see what there was to see—which was a shame, because with a bit more foresight we might have planned a visit to nearby Murano, the suburb responsible for keeping Venice’s finest gift shops stocked.

The Spittin’ Image
Murano is a cluster of five small, closely spaced islands in the Venetian lagoon, less than 2 miles (about 3km) north of the city of Venice. Murano’s islands, like those of Venice, are linked by bridges and separated by canals; in fact, nearly everything about the town seems to be an extension of its much larger neighbor nearby. That in itself makes Murano an interesting and picturesque place, but it’s best known for its legendary glass craftsmen. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Fire Breathing

Don’t try this at home

As is clear from the many email messages I receive, readers of Interesting Thing of the Day are, on the whole, intelligent, educated, and clear-thinking individuals. You are not prone to careless or reckless behavior, and you have more than a fair measure of common sense. So I felt it unnecessary to point out, for example, when writing about coffee, that it is a hot beverage that could burn you if you are not careful. I did not have to mention that if you enter a wife-carrying contest you should lift with your legs, not with your back. And I felt no need to caution you against saying “My, how lovely you look today” when speaking Klingon. You are smart enough to figure all these things out on your own.

And yet, after reading many Web sites about fire breathing—each of which begins with a stern warning and disclaimer in large bold letters—I feel strangely compelled to point out that actually attempting to breathe fire is an incredibly bad idea. However impressive it may appear, and however many circus performers may have done it all their lives, I must urge you in the strongest possible terms to resist any temptation to bring fire, or indeed flammable substances generally, into proximity with your mouth. If you fail to heed this warning and in so doing suffer disfiguring burns, cancer, loss of important body parts, or death, well, don’t say I didn’t warn you. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Raku

Zen and the art of tea bowls

I understand coffee. I know where it comes from, how it’s processed, how to prepare it in numerous ways, and how much I enjoy drinking it. When it comes to tea, though, I’m out of my element. It’s not that I’m unfamiliar with tea—I’ve got probably a dozen varieties in my kitchen, and I have at least learned how to brew it in a way that wouldn’t cause my British friends to scowl. But beyond the basic concept of using hot water to extract flavor from dried leaves are many subtleties that utterly confound me. On a couple of occasions, for instance, I’ve enjoyed sharing tea with a friend who’s a Buddhist monk. He can discern those infinitesimal hints of flavor and ineffable variations in character that separate one tea from another, in much the same way a wine connoisseur distinguishes a note of vanilla here, a slight whiff of cherry there.

Then there’s the tea ritual. For me, tea has always been a mere beverage, but in many parts of the world, tea must be prepared and consumed according to a strict set of protocols and using just the right implements. Perhaps the best known custom is the Japanese tea ceremony, a ritual that in its most elaborate form can last hours. Japanese tea rituals were heavily influenced by Zen, which accounts for the simplicity, deliberateness, and mindfulness that customarily accompany ceremonial tea drinking, making it more of a meditative practice than an act of hydration. Every element of the ceremony, from the cloth used to clean the tea scoop to the ladle used to transfer the water must be made, used, and cared for in just the right way. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Microbial Fuel Cells

Electricity from bugs

Fuel cells have a very high buzz factor these days. These seemingly magical devices create electricity from hydrogen and oxygen—producing pure water as their only byproduct. Several major cities already have fleets of buses that use fuel cells. Auto manufacturers promise us that within a few years, we’ll be able to buy fuel cell-powered cars that create no pollution at all—thus enabling us to reduce our dependence on oil and slow global warming while saving money with inexpensive hydrogen fuel. Spacecraft have used fuel cells for decades to produce electricity, since the hydrogen and oxygen they need are both conveniently available in onboard tanks. And in the near future, fuel cells may even be put to more prosaic uses, powering notebook computers, cell phones, and other personal electronic devices.

Ship of Fuels
But although fuel cell technology is by no means new, it has yet to achieve large-scale commercial success. One of the main reasons is that hydrogen, the most common fuel, is surprisingly difficult to obtain. Even though hydrogen is present in water, air, and organic matter of all sorts, pure hydrogen is harder to come by. If you use electrolysis to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen so that you can use the hydrogen as fuel to produce electricity, you get into a sort of vicious cycle of energy consumption—it takes almost as much energy to produce the hydrogen in the first place as the hydrogen will later provide when used as fuel. Once you have the pure hydrogen, it’s a pain to store and deliver it safely. So the net cost is fairly high, and the net efficiency is fairly low. If only there were a handier way to obtain hydrogen—or better yet, a fuel cell design that used a more conveniently obtained fuel. Both of these hopes may be met by microbial fuel cells (MFCs), which use bacteria to process virtually any organic matter and turn it into electricity. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Vegetable Oil as Diesel Fuel

Fries and a fill-up

While out for a walk in my neighborhood, I noticed an otherwise ordinary-looking pickup truck with a big sign on the back that said “This vehicle powered by 100% used vegetable oil.” That’s nice, I thought, very environmentally conscious and all—as San Franciscans are known to be. I wondered briefly about the technological issues involved in getting a truck to run on vegetable oil, information that surely would be available a few clicks away on the Web. But I also wondered about maintaining a fuel supply. If you’re on a trip and the fuel gauge starts getting low, a gas station would presumably do you no good. Do you start looking for a doughnut shop or a fast-food joint where you can score some used oil? Is there enough to go around? And will it really end up being less expensive than conventional diesel fuel?

The first claim I discovered sounded too good to be true: diesel engines can, without modification, run on vegetable oil—just like that. Now, I’ll be the first to admit I know precious little about engines, but this revelation puzzled me. If true, then why even bother with petroleum-based fuel in the first place? As it turns out, that claim is only approximately true—some diesel engines can run on some kinds of vegetable oil under some conditions without problems. (This trick doesn’t work with gasoline engines, because the sparks produced cannot ignite vegetable oil.) Still, the fact that this can happen at all seemed pretty amazing to me. It shouldn’t have: had I read about diesel engines more carefully when I was researching fire pistons, I would have learned that the first diesel engines ran on peanut oil, and that Rudolf Diesel’s original idea was that this would be a perfect solution for areas with limited access to petroleum. Today, however, nearly all diesel engines are designed to work with petroleum-based fuel, so running such engines on vegetable oil is not entirely straightforward. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Fire Pistons

The primitive hi-tech fire starters

I’ve never been much of a camping enthusiast. It’s not that I don’t appreciate all the great gadgets associated with camping, and I certainly enjoy hiking, fresh air, and getting away from it all. But after toting all our high-tech apparatus into the middle of nowhere, setting up a tent, and rolling out the sleeping bags, I invariably think to myself: this is an awful lot of work for very little comfort. At home I would have had a nice squishy mattress, a flush toilet, clean water, and no mosquitoes. Why am I doing this again? Then it comes time to build a fire and I discover some cruel corollary of Murphy’s Law at work. On those few days I ever have to attempt this task, it’s always windy, damp, or both. Of course, I know that when matches fail, I can always bring out some specially flammable substance designed expressly for the pyrotechnically challenged. But the latest rage in fire-starting equipment is actually centuries old and uses no chemicals, sparks, or even metal components. Meet the fire piston: a deceptively simple tool that uses compressed air to start a blaze in just seconds.

Light Me Up
A fire piston is a small cylindrical object usually made of wood, bone, or plastic. It consists of two main parts: an outer casing, which is hollow but closed on one end, and the piston itself—a rod or plunger that fits the hole in the casing perfectly and whose tip reaches almost, but not quite, to the stoppered end of the tube. The tip of the piston has a small indentation or hole, and just behind the tip is usually a gasket of some kind to ensure an airtight seal—perhaps a rubber O-ring or simply some waxed string. In other words, very basic parts that require little technological sophistication to create. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Egocasting

Personalized entertainment

Guest Article by Rajagopal Sukumar

An interesting phenomenon is gaining momentum in the world of media as people begin to use technology to take control of when, where, and how they consume content. Christine Rosen wrote a seminal article “The Age of Egocasting” in The New Atlantis that describes this phenomenon in great detail. Rosen takes the reader through a fascinating journey covering the history of various technological advances such as the TV, remote control, VCR, TiVo, and iPod, and explains how they have now culminated in the capability to create a personal bubble, inside which we as “content consumers” are the sole masters of what we see and hear. Rosen bestowed on this phenomenon the catchy name “Egocasting” and went on to define it as “the thoroughly personalized and extremely narrow pursuit of one’s personal taste, where we exercise an unparalleled degree of control over what we watch and what we hear.”

Although Rosen describes how content consumption patterns are changing, the content being consumed in Rosen’s world is still exclusively produced by the mainstream media (MSM, as it is sometimes called these days). Actually, technology is having a very big impact on the content production side as well, and is giving rise to a new media that may one day be a big powerful rival to the MSM. Before we review the changing power equation, let’s take a quick look at the main sources of power the MSM possesses: [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Orgone

The strange theories of Wilhelm Reich

Back when I wrote about the Sedona energy vortexes, a friend of mine said I should look into something called “orgone”—apparently some sort of healing energy discovered by a certain Dr. Wilhelm Reich. I spent a couple of hours reading the Web sites my friend recommended, by the end of which time I was completely baffled. I had read things about alien encounters, inscrutable contraptions that were supposed to impart various vague health benefits, and other claims so bizarre that I simply couldn’t make any sense of them. The material was so opaque and confusing that I couldn’t even produce a coherent definition of orgone, much less write an article on the subject. Many months later, after my article on the Egely Wheel, the same friend again suggested I write about orgone, so I once again spent some time on the Web, trying to make heads or tails of it. Again, I failed. Then, one day recently, I happened to notice that Cecil Adams wrote about Reich and his theories several years ago in “The Straight Dope.” The quote that caught my eye was: “Reich was a nut.” At last, a clear and concise statement I could comprehend. Perhaps there was hope after all—I just needed to look in the right places.

Now, of course, I’ve biased you already: you’re going to think that what I’m about to describe is pure hogwash. And frankly, I think you’ll be right. As much as I try to maintain an open mind—and a charitable attitude toward those with beliefs much different from my own—I have my limits. But the story of orgone, despite its dubious claims, is nevertheless quite interesting. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

InterPlay

Getting grown-ups back into their bodies

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

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

•••••

From the archives…

Parkour

Turning a city into an obstacle course

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

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

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From the archives…

Operation Migration

Follow that airplane!

The exact techniques migrating birds use to find their way across thousands of miles to exactly the same spots year after year are only partially understood. Watching for landmarks is clearly part of it—but equally clearly, it’s not the whole story. Certain types of birds have been shown to rely only minimally on vision, in some cases apparently getting their bearings from the Earth’s magnetic field. Be that as it may, some bird species have strong migratory instincts, while others (including geese, ducks, and cranes) must be taught the way to and from their winter homes. A single demonstration is enough to program the route into a bird’s memory, but what happens when a bird never gets that first demonstration? It has no idea where to go, and as a result, its survival is threatened if it can’t find enough food when the seasons change.

This situation poses a unique problem for certain birds raised in captivity, such as the whooping crane (Grus americana)—the tallest flying bird in North America, with a height of up to 5 feet (about 1.5m) and a wingspan as wide as 8 feet (about 2.5m). By the middle of the 20th century, the worldwide population of wild whooping cranes had dipped to only 15, bringing the species perilously close to extinction. (A century earlier, there had been about 1,400 of them—and even that was a dangerously small number.) As a result of diligent conservation efforts, those few remaining birds were protected in the wild, and their numbers gradually began to increase; today, that flock numbers about 200. Meanwhile, some of their eggs were hatched in captivity to breed a “backup” flock, in case some natural disaster (such as a hurricane) wiped out the others. After several years of careful breeding and release, a non-migratory flock of nearly 100 is now living in Florida. However, what everyone wanted to see was the reestablishment of another migratory flock—a group of whooping cranes that spent their summers in Wisconsin and their winters in Florida, just as other flocks had done decades earlier. But although the birds could be bred and released successfully, there was no apparent way to teach them a safe way to fly from one home to the other. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Portmanteau

When words intertwingle

One of the great things about language—any language, but I’m thinking especially of English—is how badly you can mangle it and still be understood. All spoken language has a certain amount of built-in redundancy, so you can figure out, for example, what would have come at the end of this sentence if I’d bothered to… And the same is true at the level of individual words. If I say “gonna” instead of “going to” or “kinda” instead of “kind of,” you’ll still know exactly what I’m trying to say.

What Isn’t in a Word
When I was studying linguistics, I ran across quite a few terms that refer, in one sense or another, to missing sounds (intentional or otherwise). Here are a few examples:

  • contraction: a word formed from two or more other words, as in isn’t from “is not” or it’s from “it has”< [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Passenger Pigeons

The great American extinction

I have a confession to make. Even though my wife, Morgen, is an endless fount of interesting topics, when she suggested that I write about passenger pigeons, my first reaction was a yawn. How interesting can pigeons be? There are bazillions of them out there—I practically trip over them walking down the sidewalk every day. “But passenger pigeons are extinct,” she said. So are lots of animals, and that’s very sad, but it still doesn’t make them particularly interesting to the general public. She kept insisting that no, really, this particular kind of extinct pigeon is truly fascinating, and I kept displaying a complete lack of enthusiasm. Finally, she started reading some facts off a Web page. After the first couple of items, I thought, “Yeah, OK, that’s a bit interesting, but if that’s all there is to it…” Only it wasn’t. She kept reading—and I kept saying “Wow.” Even I had to admit, yes, the story of the passenger pigeon is quite interesting. So by way of penance, allow me to present the poop (as it were) on passenger pigeons.

The last passenger pigeon in the world died less than 100 years ago—in 1914, according to most reports. In fact, we know exactly when and where the species went extinct: Tuesday, September 1, 1914, at 1:00 p.m. Eastern time at the Cincinnati Zoo. We even know the last bird’s name: Martha. She was 29 years old. It’s rather extraordinary that we should have such detailed and precise information about the moment when a species meets its demise—the passenger pigeon is almost certainly unique in that regard. What’s even more extraordinary is that just a century or so earlier, passenger pigeons had been more numerous than any other bird in North America—numbering in the billions. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Space Pens

What to use when your writing lacks gravity

For several years as a child, I was convinced that I would be an astronaut when I grew up. I loved everything having to do with space and rockets; I collected photographs and magazines about space travel; I begged my parents to take me to the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. when it opened in 1976, and of course I also watched Star Trek reruns religiously. There simply could be no other occupation worth pursuing, and nothing could dissuade me from my passionate desire to go into space. Well, maybe one thing. I was watching the TV coverage of some space launch or another. It followed the astronauts through all the preparations they underwent leading up to the mission. And before they got into the rocket, a doctor gave them shots of some kind. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Injections? Just to go into space? No way. I’d have to find a safer profession. And from that very moment I knew I’d never be an astronaut.

Pen-t Up Ambitions
Although my dream of traveling into space had met an untimely end, I was still extremely happy to watch other people do it, and I was particularly interested in the paraphernalia of space flight—the spacesuits, the computers, the freeze-dried meals, and so on. One day I was leafing through a catalog and I saw something that made my jaw drop: the Fisher Space Pen. “Just like the astronauts use!” it said. I was already drinking Tang, so that became my next object of desire. This pen, so the catalog said, would write in zero gravity—and, as a bonus, it could also write upside down, underwater, in a vacuum, on glossy paper, in extremely hot or cold environments, or even on greasy surfaces. And it was very shiny and futuristic-looking. Wow. I had to have one. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Optical Telegraphs

18th century wireless telecommunications

Let’s say you’re besieged by a bunch of Orcs and Nazgûl in some fictional city in the realm of Gondor. And let’s say your ancient allies from far away in the land of Rohan are your only faint hope for rescue. How might you call out for help over such a great distance, especially with a bunch of mountains between you and Rohan? You would ignite a large pile of firewood that has been waiting ready at the top of a tower for just such a purpose. And many miles away, on the top of the nearest mountain, a beacon-warden would notice this fire and light one of his own. And then the warden on the next mountain over would do the same thing, and so on, until seven mountains later, your friends saw the fire nearest them and got the message.

Tolkien mentioned this event only in passing on the opening page of his book The Return of the King, but Peter Jackson made it into a dramatic scene in his Oscar-winning 2003 film version of the story. It was a moving and visually stunning portrayal of a desperate plea for aid that, given the circumstances and technological resources available, could not have been conveyed in any other way. And if you understand this long-distance visual method of relaying information, you’ve grasped the basics of the optical telegraph, which predated the more commonly known electric telegraph by decades. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Murano Glass

The mirror of Venice

Several years ago, on our first trip to Europe, Morgen and I tried very hard to visit as many sites as possible on our “must-see” list, which meant very short stops and lots of travel time. Venice was one of those obligatory stops, and we were both very sad to leave after only a few days, during which we had managed to see just a tiny sliver of the city. I was impressed by the canals, the architecture, the churches, the museums, and the omnipresent music (everywhere we turned, some little chamber orchestra was playing Vivaldi)—as well as the friendly and accommodating locals. We had no real plan other than to wander around and see what there was to see—which was a shame, because with a bit more foresight we might have planned a visit to nearby Murano, the suburb responsible for keeping Venice’s finest gift shops stocked.

The Spittin’ Image
Murano is a cluster of five small, closely spaced islands in the Venetian lagoon, less than 2 miles (about 3km) north of the city of Venice. Murano’s islands, like those of Venice, are linked by bridges and separated by canals; in fact, nearly everything about the town seems to be an extension of its much larger neighbor nearby. That in itself makes Murano an interesting and picturesque place, but it’s best known for its legendary glass craftsmen. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Fire Breathing

Don’t try this at home

As is clear from the many email messages I receive, readers of Interesting Thing of the Day are, on the whole, intelligent, educated, and clear-thinking individuals. You are not prone to careless or reckless behavior, and you have more than a fair measure of common sense. So I felt it unnecessary to point out, for example, when writing about coffee, that it is a hot beverage that could burn you if you are not careful. I did not have to mention that if you enter a wife-carrying contest you should lift with your legs, not with your back. And I felt no need to caution you against saying “My, how lovely you look today” when speaking Klingon. You are smart enough to figure all these things out on your own.

And yet, after reading many Web sites about fire breathing—each of which begins with a stern warning and disclaimer in large bold letters—I feel strangely compelled to point out that actually attempting to breathe fire is an incredibly bad idea. However impressive it may appear, and however many circus performers may have done it all their lives, I must urge you in the strongest possible terms to resist any temptation to bring fire, or indeed flammable substances generally, into proximity with your mouth. If you fail to heed this warning and in so doing suffer disfiguring burns, cancer, loss of important body parts, or death, well, don’t say I didn’t warn you. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Raku

Zen and the art of tea bowls

I understand coffee. I know where it comes from, how it’s processed, how to prepare it in numerous ways, and how much I enjoy drinking it. When it comes to tea, though, I’m out of my element. It’s not that I’m unfamiliar with tea—I’ve got probably a dozen varieties in my kitchen, and I have at least learned how to brew it in a way that wouldn’t cause my British friends to scowl. But beyond the basic concept of using hot water to extract flavor from dried leaves are many subtleties that utterly confound me. On a couple of occasions, for instance, I’ve enjoyed sharing tea with a friend who’s a Buddhist monk. He can discern those infinitesimal hints of flavor and ineffable variations in character that separate one tea from another, in much the same way a wine connoisseur distinguishes a note of vanilla here, a slight whiff of cherry there.

Then there’s the tea ritual. For me, tea has always been a mere beverage, but in many parts of the world, tea must be prepared and consumed according to a strict set of protocols and using just the right implements. Perhaps the best known custom is the Japanese tea ceremony, a ritual that in its most elaborate form can last hours. Japanese tea rituals were heavily influenced by Zen, which accounts for the simplicity, deliberateness, and mindfulness that customarily accompany ceremonial tea drinking, making it more of a meditative practice than an act of hydration. Every element of the ceremony, from the cloth used to clean the tea scoop to the ladle used to transfer the water must be made, used, and cared for in just the right way. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Microbial Fuel Cells

Electricity from bugs

Fuel cells have a very high buzz factor these days. These seemingly magical devices create electricity from hydrogen and oxygen—producing pure water as their only byproduct. Several major cities already have fleets of buses that use fuel cells. Auto manufacturers promise us that within a few years, we’ll be able to buy fuel cell-powered cars that create no pollution at all—thus enabling us to reduce our dependence on oil and slow global warming while saving money with inexpensive hydrogen fuel. Spacecraft have used fuel cells for decades to produce electricity, since the hydrogen and oxygen they need are both conveniently available in onboard tanks. And in the near future, fuel cells may even be put to more prosaic uses, powering notebook computers, cell phones, and other personal electronic devices.

Ship of Fuels
But although fuel cell technology is by no means new, it has yet to achieve large-scale commercial success. One of the main reasons is that hydrogen, the most common fuel, is surprisingly difficult to obtain. Even though hydrogen is present in water, air, and organic matter of all sorts, pure hydrogen is harder to come by. If you use electrolysis to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen so that you can use the hydrogen as fuel to produce electricity, you get into a sort of vicious cycle of energy consumption—it takes almost as much energy to produce the hydrogen in the first place as the hydrogen will later provide when used as fuel. Once you have the pure hydrogen, it’s a pain to store and deliver it safely. So the net cost is fairly high, and the net efficiency is fairly low. If only there were a handier way to obtain hydrogen—or better yet, a fuel cell design that used a more conveniently obtained fuel. Both of these hopes may be met by microbial fuel cells (MFCs), which use bacteria to process virtually any organic matter and turn it into electricity. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Vegetable Oil as Diesel Fuel

Fries and a fill-up

While out for a walk in my neighborhood, I noticed an otherwise ordinary-looking pickup truck with a big sign on the back that said “This vehicle powered by 100% used vegetable oil.” That’s nice, I thought, very environmentally conscious and all—as San Franciscans are known to be. I wondered briefly about the technological issues involved in getting a truck to run on vegetable oil, information that surely would be available a few clicks away on the Web. But I also wondered about maintaining a fuel supply. If you’re on a trip and the fuel gauge starts getting low, a gas station would presumably do you no good. Do you start looking for a doughnut shop or a fast-food joint where you can score some used oil? Is there enough to go around? And will it really end up being less expensive than conventional diesel fuel?

The first claim I discovered sounded too good to be true: diesel engines can, without modification, run on vegetable oil—just like that. Now, I’ll be the first to admit I know precious little about engines, but this revelation puzzled me. If true, then why even bother with petroleum-based fuel in the first place? As it turns out, that claim is only approximately true—some diesel engines can run on some kinds of vegetable oil under some conditions without problems. (This trick doesn’t work with gasoline engines, because the sparks produced cannot ignite vegetable oil.) Still, the fact that this can happen at all seemed pretty amazing to me. It shouldn’t have: had I read about diesel engines more carefully when I was researching fire pistons, I would have learned that the first diesel engines ran on peanut oil, and that Rudolf Diesel’s original idea was that this would be a perfect solution for areas with limited access to petroleum. Today, however, nearly all diesel engines are designed to work with petroleum-based fuel, so running such engines on vegetable oil is not entirely straightforward. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Fire Pistons

The primitive hi-tech fire starters

I’ve never been much of a camping enthusiast. It’s not that I don’t appreciate all the great gadgets associated with camping, and I certainly enjoy hiking, fresh air, and getting away from it all. But after toting all our high-tech apparatus into the middle of nowhere, setting up a tent, and rolling out the sleeping bags, I invariably think to myself: this is an awful lot of work for very little comfort. At home I would have had a nice squishy mattress, a flush toilet, clean water, and no mosquitoes. Why am I doing this again? Then it comes time to build a fire and I discover some cruel corollary of Murphy’s Law at work. On those few days I ever have to attempt this task, it’s always windy, damp, or both. Of course, I know that when matches fail, I can always bring out some specially flammable substance designed expressly for the pyrotechnically challenged. But the latest rage in fire-starting equipment is actually centuries old and uses no chemicals, sparks, or even metal components. Meet the fire piston: a deceptively simple tool that uses compressed air to start a blaze in just seconds.

Light Me Up
A fire piston is a small cylindrical object usually made of wood, bone, or plastic. It consists of two main parts: an outer casing, which is hollow but closed on one end, and the piston itself—a rod or plunger that fits the hole in the casing perfectly and whose tip reaches almost, but not quite, to the stoppered end of the tube. The tip of the piston has a small indentation or hole, and just behind the tip is usually a gasket of some kind to ensure an airtight seal—perhaps a rubber O-ring or simply some waxed string. In other words, very basic parts that require little technological sophistication to create. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Egocasting

Personalized entertainment

Guest Article by Rajagopal Sukumar

An interesting phenomenon is gaining momentum in the world of media as people begin to use technology to take control of when, where, and how they consume content. Christine Rosen wrote a seminal article “The Age of Egocasting” in The New Atlantis that describes this phenomenon in great detail. Rosen takes the reader through a fascinating journey covering the history of various technological advances such as the TV, remote control, VCR, TiVo, and iPod, and explains how they have now culminated in the capability to create a personal bubble, inside which we as “content consumers” are the sole masters of what we see and hear. Rosen bestowed on this phenomenon the catchy name “Egocasting” and went on to define it as “the thoroughly personalized and extremely narrow pursuit of one’s personal taste, where we exercise an unparalleled degree of control over what we watch and what we hear.”

Although Rosen describes how content consumption patterns are changing, the content being consumed in Rosen’s world is still exclusively produced by the mainstream media (MSM, as it is sometimes called these days). Actually, technology is having a very big impact on the content production side as well, and is giving rise to a new media that may one day be a big powerful rival to the MSM. Before we review the changing power equation, let’s take a quick look at the main sources of power the MSM possesses: [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Orgone

The strange theories of Wilhelm Reich

Back when I wrote about the Sedona energy vortexes, a friend of mine said I should look into something called “orgone”—apparently some sort of healing energy discovered by a certain Dr. Wilhelm Reich. I spent a couple of hours reading the Web sites my friend recommended, by the end of which time I was completely baffled. I had read things about alien encounters, inscrutable contraptions that were supposed to impart various vague health benefits, and other claims so bizarre that I simply couldn’t make any sense of them. The material was so opaque and confusing that I couldn’t even produce a coherent definition of orgone, much less write an article on the subject. Many months later, after my article on the Egely Wheel, the same friend again suggested I write about orgone, so I once again spent some time on the Web, trying to make heads or tails of it. Again, I failed. Then, one day recently, I happened to notice that Cecil Adams wrote about Reich and his theories several years ago in “The Straight Dope.” The quote that caught my eye was: “Reich was a nut.” At last, a clear and concise statement I could comprehend. Perhaps there was hope after all—I just needed to look in the right places.

Now, of course, I’ve biased you already: you’re going to think that what I’m about to describe is pure hogwash. And frankly, I think you’ll be right. As much as I try to maintain an open mind—and a charitable attitude toward those with beliefs much different from my own—I have my limits. But the story of orgone, despite its dubious claims, is nevertheless quite interesting. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

InterPlay

Getting grown-ups back into their bodies

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

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

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From the archives…

Parkour

Turning a city into an obstacle course

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

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

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From the archives…

Operation Migration

Follow that airplane!

The exact techniques migrating birds use to find their way across thousands of miles to exactly the same spots year after year are only partially understood. Watching for landmarks is clearly part of it—but equally clearly, it’s not the whole story. Certain types of birds have been shown to rely only minimally on vision, in some cases apparently getting their bearings from the Earth’s magnetic field. Be that as it may, some bird species have strong migratory instincts, while others (including geese, ducks, and cranes) must be taught the way to and from their winter homes. A single demonstration is enough to program the route into a bird’s memory, but what happens when a bird never gets that first demonstration? It has no idea where to go, and as a result, its survival is threatened if it can’t find enough food when the seasons change.

This situation poses a unique problem for certain birds raised in captivity, such as the whooping crane (Grus americana)—the tallest flying bird in North America, with a height of up to 5 feet (about 1.5m) and a wingspan as wide as 8 feet (about 2.5m). By the middle of the 20th century, the worldwide population of wild whooping cranes had dipped to only 15, bringing the species perilously close to extinction. (A century earlier, there had been about 1,400 of them—and even that was a dangerously small number.) As a result of diligent conservation efforts, those few remaining birds were protected in the wild, and their numbers gradually began to increase; today, that flock numbers about 200. Meanwhile, some of their eggs were hatched in captivity to breed a “backup” flock, in case some natural disaster (such as a hurricane) wiped out the others. After several years of careful breeding and release, a non-migratory flock of nearly 100 is now living in Florida. However, what everyone wanted to see was the reestablishment of another migratory flock—a group of whooping cranes that spent their summers in Wisconsin and their winters in Florida, just as other flocks had done decades earlier. But although the birds could be bred and released successfully, there was no apparent way to teach them a safe way to fly from one home to the other. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Portmanteau

When words intertwingle

One of the great things about language—any language, but I’m thinking especially of English—is how badly you can mangle it and still be understood. All spoken language has a certain amount of built-in redundancy, so you can figure out, for example, what would have come at the end of this sentence if I’d bothered to… And the same is true at the level of individual words. If I say “gonna” instead of “going to” or “kinda” instead of “kind of,” you’ll still know exactly what I’m trying to say.

What Isn’t in a Word
When I was studying linguistics, I ran across quite a few terms that refer, in one sense or another, to missing sounds (intentional or otherwise). Here are a few examples:

  • contraction: a word formed from two or more other words, as in isn’t from “is not” or it’s from “it has”< [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Passenger Pigeons

The great American extinction

I have a confession to make. Even though my wife, Morgen, is an endless fount of interesting topics, when she suggested that I write about passenger pigeons, my first reaction was a yawn. How interesting can pigeons be? There are bazillions of them out there—I practically trip over them walking down the sidewalk every day. “But passenger pigeons are extinct,” she said. So are lots of animals, and that’s very sad, but it still doesn’t make them particularly interesting to the general public. She kept insisting that no, really, this particular kind of extinct pigeon is truly fascinating, and I kept displaying a complete lack of enthusiasm. Finally, she started reading some facts off a Web page. After the first couple of items, I thought, “Yeah, OK, that’s a bit interesting, but if that’s all there is to it…” Only it wasn’t. She kept reading—and I kept saying “Wow.” Even I had to admit, yes, the story of the passenger pigeon is quite interesting. So by way of penance, allow me to present the poop (as it were) on passenger pigeons.

The last passenger pigeon in the world died less than 100 years ago—in 1914, according to most reports. In fact, we know exactly when and where the species went extinct: Tuesday, September 1, 1914, at 1:00 p.m. Eastern time at the Cincinnati Zoo. We even know the last bird’s name: Martha. She was 29 years old. It’s rather extraordinary that we should have such detailed and precise information about the moment when a species meets its demise—the passenger pigeon is almost certainly unique in that regard. What’s even more extraordinary is that just a century or so earlier, passenger pigeons had been more numerous than any other bird in North America—numbering in the billions. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Space Pens

What to use when your writing lacks gravity

For several years as a child, I was convinced that I would be an astronaut when I grew up. I loved everything having to do with space and rockets; I collected photographs and magazines about space travel; I begged my parents to take me to the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. when it opened in 1976, and of course I also watched Star Trek reruns religiously. There simply could be no other occupation worth pursuing, and nothing could dissuade me from my passionate desire to go into space. Well, maybe one thing. I was watching the TV coverage of some space launch or another. It followed the astronauts through all the preparations they underwent leading up to the mission. And before they got into the rocket, a doctor gave them shots of some kind. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Injections? Just to go into space? No way. I’d have to find a safer profession. And from that very moment I knew I’d never be an astronaut.

Pen-t Up Ambitions
Although my dream of traveling into space had met an untimely end, I was still extremely happy to watch other people do it, and I was particularly interested in the paraphernalia of space flight—the spacesuits, the computers, the freeze-dried meals, and so on. One day I was leafing through a catalog and I saw something that made my jaw drop: the Fisher Space Pen. “Just like the astronauts use!” it said. I was already drinking Tang, so that became my next object of desire. This pen, so the catalog said, would write in zero gravity—and, as a bonus, it could also write upside down, underwater, in a vacuum, on glossy paper, in extremely hot or cold environments, or even on greasy surfaces. And it was very shiny and futuristic-looking. Wow. I had to have one. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Optical Telegraphs

18th century wireless telecommunications

Let’s say you’re besieged by a bunch of Orcs and Nazgûl in some fictional city in the realm of Gondor. And let’s say your ancient allies from far away in the land of Rohan are your only faint hope for rescue. How might you call out for help over such a great distance, especially with a bunch of mountains between you and Rohan? You would ignite a large pile of firewood that has been waiting ready at the top of a tower for just such a purpose. And many miles away, on the top of the nearest mountain, a beacon-warden would notice this fire and light one of his own. And then the warden on the next mountain over would do the same thing, and so on, until seven mountains later, your friends saw the fire nearest them and got the message.

Tolkien mentioned this event only in passing on the opening page of his book The Return of the King, but Peter Jackson made it into a dramatic scene in his Oscar-winning 2003 film version of the story. It was a moving and visually stunning portrayal of a desperate plea for aid that, given the circumstances and technological resources available, could not have been conveyed in any other way. And if you understand this long-distance visual method of relaying information, you’ve grasped the basics of the optical telegraph, which predated the more commonly known electric telegraph by decades. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Murano Glass

The mirror of Venice

Several years ago, on our first trip to Europe, Morgen and I tried very hard to visit as many sites as possible on our “must-see” list, which meant very short stops and lots of travel time. Venice was one of those obligatory stops, and we were both very sad to leave after only a few days, during which we had managed to see just a tiny sliver of the city. I was impressed by the canals, the architecture, the churches, the museums, and the omnipresent music (everywhere we turned, some little chamber orchestra was playing Vivaldi)—as well as the friendly and accommodating locals. We had no real plan other than to wander around and see what there was to see—which was a shame, because with a bit more foresight we might have planned a visit to nearby Murano, the suburb responsible for keeping Venice’s finest gift shops stocked.

The Spittin’ Image
Murano is a cluster of five small, closely spaced islands in the Venetian lagoon, less than 2 miles (about 3km) north of the city of Venice. Murano’s islands, like those of Venice, are linked by bridges and separated by canals; in fact, nearly everything about the town seems to be an extension of its much larger neighbor nearby. That in itself makes Murano an interesting and picturesque place, but it’s best known for its legendary glass craftsmen. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Fire Breathing

Don’t try this at home

As is clear from the many email messages I receive, readers of Interesting Thing of the Day are, on the whole, intelligent, educated, and clear-thinking individuals. You are not prone to careless or reckless behavior, and you have more than a fair measure of common sense. So I felt it unnecessary to point out, for example, when writing about coffee, that it is a hot beverage that could burn you if you are not careful. I did not have to mention that if you enter a wife-carrying contest you should lift with your legs, not with your back. And I felt no need to caution you against saying “My, how lovely you look today” when speaking Klingon. You are smart enough to figure all these things out on your own.

And yet, after reading many Web sites about fire breathing—each of which begins with a stern warning and disclaimer in large bold letters—I feel strangely compelled to point out that actually attempting to breathe fire is an incredibly bad idea. However impressive it may appear, and however many circus performers may have done it all their lives, I must urge you in the strongest possible terms to resist any temptation to bring fire, or indeed flammable substances generally, into proximity with your mouth. If you fail to heed this warning and in so doing suffer disfiguring burns, cancer, loss of important body parts, or death, well, don’t say I didn’t warn you. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Raku

Zen and the art of tea bowls

I understand coffee. I know where it comes from, how it’s processed, how to prepare it in numerous ways, and how much I enjoy drinking it. When it comes to tea, though, I’m out of my element. It’s not that I’m unfamiliar with tea—I’ve got probably a dozen varieties in my kitchen, and I have at least learned how to brew it in a way that wouldn’t cause my British friends to scowl. But beyond the basic concept of using hot water to extract flavor from dried leaves are many subtleties that utterly confound me. On a couple of occasions, for instance, I’ve enjoyed sharing tea with a friend who’s a Buddhist monk. He can discern those infinitesimal hints of flavor and ineffable variations in character that separate one tea from another, in much the same way a wine connoisseur distinguishes a note of vanilla here, a slight whiff of cherry there.

Then there’s the tea ritual. For me, tea has always been a mere beverage, but in many parts of the world, tea must be prepared and consumed according to a strict set of protocols and using just the right implements. Perhaps the best known custom is the Japanese tea ceremony, a ritual that in its most elaborate form can last hours. Japanese tea rituals were heavily influenced by Zen, which accounts for the simplicity, deliberateness, and mindfulness that customarily accompany ceremonial tea drinking, making it more of a meditative practice than an act of hydration. Every element of the ceremony, from the cloth used to clean the tea scoop to the ladle used to transfer the water must be made, used, and cared for in just the right way. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Microbial Fuel Cells

Electricity from bugs

Fuel cells have a very high buzz factor these days. These seemingly magical devices create electricity from hydrogen and oxygen—producing pure water as their only byproduct. Several major cities already have fleets of buses that use fuel cells. Auto manufacturers promise us that within a few years, we’ll be able to buy fuel cell-powered cars that create no pollution at all—thus enabling us to reduce our dependence on oil and slow global warming while saving money with inexpensive hydrogen fuel. Spacecraft have used fuel cells for decades to produce electricity, since the hydrogen and oxygen they need are both conveniently available in onboard tanks. And in the near future, fuel cells may even be put to more prosaic uses, powering notebook computers, cell phones, and other personal electronic devices.

Ship of Fuels
But although fuel cell technology is by no means new, it has yet to achieve large-scale commercial success. One of the main reasons is that hydrogen, the most common fuel, is surprisingly difficult to obtain. Even though hydrogen is present in water, air, and organic matter of all sorts, pure hydrogen is harder to come by. If you use electrolysis to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen so that you can use the hydrogen as fuel to produce electricity, you get into a sort of vicious cycle of energy consumption—it takes almost as much energy to produce the hydrogen in the first place as the hydrogen will later provide when used as fuel. Once you have the pure hydrogen, it’s a pain to store and deliver it safely. So the net cost is fairly high, and the net efficiency is fairly low. If only there were a handier way to obtain hydrogen—or better yet, a fuel cell design that used a more conveniently obtained fuel. Both of these hopes may be met by microbial fuel cells (MFCs), which use bacteria to process virtually any organic matter and turn it into electricity. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Vegetable Oil as Diesel Fuel

Fries and a fill-up

While out for a walk in my neighborhood, I noticed an otherwise ordinary-looking pickup truck with a big sign on the back that said “This vehicle powered by 100% used vegetable oil.” That’s nice, I thought, very environmentally conscious and all—as San Franciscans are known to be. I wondered briefly about the technological issues involved in getting a truck to run on vegetable oil, information that surely would be available a few clicks away on the Web. But I also wondered about maintaining a fuel supply. If you’re on a trip and the fuel gauge starts getting low, a gas station would presumably do you no good. Do you start looking for a doughnut shop or a fast-food joint where you can score some used oil? Is there enough to go around? And will it really end up being less expensive than conventional diesel fuel?

The first claim I discovered sounded too good to be true: diesel engines can, without modification, run on vegetable oil—just like that. Now, I’ll be the first to admit I know precious little about engines, but this revelation puzzled me. If true, then why even bother with petroleum-based fuel in the first place? As it turns out, that claim is only approximately true—some diesel engines can run on some kinds of vegetable oil under some conditions without problems. (This trick doesn’t work with gasoline engines, because the sparks produced cannot ignite vegetable oil.) Still, the fact that this can happen at all seemed pretty amazing to me. It shouldn’t have: had I read about diesel engines more carefully when I was researching fire pistons, I would have learned that the first diesel engines ran on peanut oil, and that Rudolf Diesel’s original idea was that this would be a perfect solution for areas with limited access to petroleum. Today, however, nearly all diesel engines are designed to work with petroleum-based fuel, so running such engines on vegetable oil is not entirely straightforward. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Fire Pistons

The primitive hi-tech fire starters

I’ve never been much of a camping enthusiast. It’s not that I don’t appreciate all the great gadgets associated with camping, and I certainly enjoy hiking, fresh air, and getting away from it all. But after toting all our high-tech apparatus into the middle of nowhere, setting up a tent, and rolling out the sleeping bags, I invariably think to myself: this is an awful lot of work for very little comfort. At home I would have had a nice squishy mattress, a flush toilet, clean water, and no mosquitoes. Why am I doing this again? Then it comes time to build a fire and I discover some cruel corollary of Murphy’s Law at work. On those few days I ever have to attempt this task, it’s always windy, damp, or both. Of course, I know that when matches fail, I can always bring out some specially flammable substance designed expressly for the pyrotechnically challenged. But the latest rage in fire-starting equipment is actually centuries old and uses no chemicals, sparks, or even metal components. Meet the fire piston: a deceptively simple tool that uses compressed air to start a blaze in just seconds.

Light Me Up
A fire piston is a small cylindrical object usually made of wood, bone, or plastic. It consists of two main parts: an outer casing, which is hollow but closed on one end, and the piston itself—a rod or plunger that fits the hole in the casing perfectly and whose tip reaches almost, but not quite, to the stoppered end of the tube. The tip of the piston has a small indentation or hole, and just behind the tip is usually a gasket of some kind to ensure an airtight seal—perhaps a rubber O-ring or simply some waxed string. In other words, very basic parts that require little technological sophistication to create. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Egocasting

Personalized entertainment

Guest Article by Rajagopal Sukumar

An interesting phenomenon is gaining momentum in the world of media as people begin to use technology to take control of when, where, and how they consume content. Christine Rosen wrote a seminal article “The Age of Egocasting” in The New Atlantis that describes this phenomenon in great detail. Rosen takes the reader through a fascinating journey covering the history of various technological advances such as the TV, remote control, VCR, TiVo, and iPod, and explains how they have now culminated in the capability to create a personal bubble, inside which we as “content consumers” are the sole masters of what we see and hear. Rosen bestowed on this phenomenon the catchy name “Egocasting” and went on to define it as “the thoroughly personalized and extremely narrow pursuit of one’s personal taste, where we exercise an unparalleled degree of control over what we watch and what we hear.”

Although Rosen describes how content consumption patterns are changing, the content being consumed in Rosen’s world is still exclusively produced by the mainstream media (MSM, as it is sometimes called these days). Actually, technology is having a very big impact on the content production side as well, and is giving rise to a new media that may one day be a big powerful rival to the MSM. Before we review the changing power equation, let’s take a quick look at the main sources of power the MSM possesses: [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Orgone

The strange theories of Wilhelm Reich

Back when I wrote about the Sedona energy vortexes, a friend of mine said I should look into something called “orgone”—apparently some sort of healing energy discovered by a certain Dr. Wilhelm Reich. I spent a couple of hours reading the Web sites my friend recommended, by the end of which time I was completely baffled. I had read things about alien encounters, inscrutable contraptions that were supposed to impart various vague health benefits, and other claims so bizarre that I simply couldn’t make any sense of them. The material was so opaque and confusing that I couldn’t even produce a coherent definition of orgone, much less write an article on the subject. Many months later, after my article on the Egely Wheel, the same friend again suggested I write about orgone, so I once again spent some time on the Web, trying to make heads or tails of it. Again, I failed. Then, one day recently, I happened to notice that Cecil Adams wrote about Reich and his theories several years ago in “The Straight Dope.” The quote that caught my eye was: “Reich was a nut.” At last, a clear and concise statement I could comprehend. Perhaps there was hope after all—I just needed to look in the right places.

Now, of course, I’ve biased you already: you’re going to think that what I’m about to describe is pure hogwash. And frankly, I think you’ll be right. As much as I try to maintain an open mind—and a charitable attitude toward those with beliefs much different from my own—I have my limits. But the story of orgone, despite its dubious claims, is nevertheless quite interesting. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

InterPlay

Getting grown-ups back into their bodies

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

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

•••••

From the archives…

Parkour

Turning a city into an obstacle course

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

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

•••••

From the archives…

Operation Migration

Follow that airplane!

The exact techniques migrating birds use to find their way across thousands of miles to exactly the same spots year after year are only partially understood. Watching for landmarks is clearly part of it—but equally clearly, it’s not the whole story. Certain types of birds have been shown to rely only minimally on vision, in some cases apparently getting their bearings from the Earth’s magnetic field. Be that as it may, some bird species have strong migratory instincts, while others (including geese, ducks, and cranes) must be taught the way to and from their winter homes. A single demonstration is enough to program the route into a bird’s memory, but what happens when a bird never gets that first demonstration? It has no idea where to go, and as a result, its survival is threatened if it can’t find enough food when the seasons change.

This situation poses a unique problem for certain birds raised in captivity, such as the whooping crane (Grus americana)—the tallest flying bird in North America, with a height of up to 5 feet (about 1.5m) and a wingspan as wide as 8 feet (about 2.5m). By the middle of the 20th century, the worldwide population of wild whooping cranes had dipped to only 15, bringing the species perilously close to extinction. (A century earlier, there had been about 1,400 of them—and even that was a dangerously small number.) As a result of diligent conservation efforts, those few remaining birds were protected in the wild, and their numbers gradually began to increase; today, that flock numbers about 200. Meanwhile, some of their eggs were hatched in captivity to breed a “backup” flock, in case some natural disaster (such as a hurricane) wiped out the others. After several years of careful breeding and release, a non-migratory flock of nearly 100 is now living in Florida. However, what everyone wanted to see was the reestablishment of another migratory flock—a group of whooping cranes that spent their summers in Wisconsin and their winters in Florida, just as other flocks had done decades earlier. But although the birds could be bred and released successfully, there was no apparent way to teach them a safe way to fly from one home to the other. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Portmanteau

When words intertwingle

One of the great things about language—any language, but I’m thinking especially of English—is how badly you can mangle it and still be understood. All spoken language has a certain amount of built-in redundancy, so you can figure out, for example, what would have come at the end of this sentence if I’d bothered to… And the same is true at the level of individual words. If I say “gonna” instead of “going to” or “kinda” instead of “kind of,” you’ll still know exactly what I’m trying to say.

What Isn’t in a Word
When I was studying linguistics, I ran across quite a few terms that refer, in one sense or another, to missing sounds (intentional or otherwise). Here are a few examples:

  • contraction: a word formed from two or more other words, as in isn’t from “is not” or it’s from “it has”< [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Passenger Pigeons

The great American extinction

I have a confession to make. Even though my wife, Morgen, is an endless fount of interesting topics, when she suggested that I write about passenger pigeons, my first reaction was a yawn. How interesting can pigeons be? There are bazillions of them out there—I practically trip over them walking down the sidewalk every day. “But passenger pigeons are extinct,” she said. So are lots of animals, and that’s very sad, but it still doesn’t make them particularly interesting to the general public. She kept insisting that no, really, this particular kind of extinct pigeon is truly fascinating, and I kept displaying a complete lack of enthusiasm. Finally, she started reading some facts off a Web page. After the first couple of items, I thought, “Yeah, OK, that’s a bit interesting, but if that’s all there is to it…” Only it wasn’t. She kept reading—and I kept saying “Wow.” Even I had to admit, yes, the story of the passenger pigeon is quite interesting. So by way of penance, allow me to present the poop (as it were) on passenger pigeons.

The last passenger pigeon in the world died less than 100 years ago—in 1914, according to most reports. In fact, we know exactly when and where the species went extinct: Tuesday, September 1, 1914, at 1:00 p.m. Eastern time at the Cincinnati Zoo. We even know the last bird’s name: Martha. She was 29 years old. It’s rather extraordinary that we should have such detailed and precise information about the moment when a species meets its demise—the passenger pigeon is almost certainly unique in that regard. What’s even more extraordinary is that just a century or so earlier, passenger pigeons had been more numerous than any other bird in North America—numbering in the billions. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Space Pens

What to use when your writing lacks gravity

For several years as a child, I was convinced that I would be an astronaut when I grew up. I loved everything having to do with space and rockets; I collected photographs and magazines about space travel; I begged my parents to take me to the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. when it opened in 1976, and of course I also watched Star Trek reruns religiously. There simply could be no other occupation worth pursuing, and nothing could dissuade me from my passionate desire to go into space. Well, maybe one thing. I was watching the TV coverage of some space launch or another. It followed the astronauts through all the preparations they underwent leading up to the mission. And before they got into the rocket, a doctor gave them shots of some kind. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Injections? Just to go into space? No way. I’d have to find a safer profession. And from that very moment I knew I’d never be an astronaut.

Pen-t Up Ambitions
Although my dream of traveling into space had met an untimely end, I was still extremely happy to watch other people do it, and I was particularly interested in the paraphernalia of space flight—the spacesuits, the computers, the freeze-dried meals, and so on. One day I was leafing through a catalog and I saw something that made my jaw drop: the Fisher Space Pen. “Just like the astronauts use!” it said. I was already drinking Tang, so that became my next object of desire. This pen, so the catalog said, would write in zero gravity—and, as a bonus, it could also write upside down, underwater, in a vacuum, on glossy paper, in extremely hot or cold environments, or even on greasy surfaces. And it was very shiny and futuristic-looking. Wow. I had to have one. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Optical Telegraphs

18th century wireless telecommunications

Let’s say you’re besieged by a bunch of Orcs and Nazgûl in some fictional city in the realm of Gondor. And let’s say your ancient allies from far away in the land of Rohan are your only faint hope for rescue. How might you call out for help over such a great distance, especially with a bunch of mountains between you and Rohan? You would ignite a large pile of firewood that has been waiting ready at the top of a tower for just such a purpose. And many miles away, on the top of the nearest mountain, a beacon-warden would notice this fire and light one of his own. And then the warden on the next mountain over would do the same thing, and so on, until seven mountains later, your friends saw the fire nearest them and got the message.

Tolkien mentioned this event only in passing on the opening page of his book The Return of the King, but Peter Jackson made it into a dramatic scene in his Oscar-winning 2003 film version of the story. It was a moving and visually stunning portrayal of a desperate plea for aid that, given the circumstances and technological resources available, could not have been conveyed in any other way. And if you understand this long-distance visual method of relaying information, you’ve grasped the basics of the optical telegraph, which predated the more commonly known electric telegraph by decades. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Murano Glass

The mirror of Venice

Several years ago, on our first trip to Europe, Morgen and I tried very hard to visit as many sites as possible on our “must-see” list, which meant very short stops and lots of travel time. Venice was one of those obligatory stops, and we were both very sad to leave after only a few days, during which we had managed to see just a tiny sliver of the city. I was impressed by the canals, the architecture, the churches, the museums, and the omnipresent music (everywhere we turned, some little chamber orchestra was playing Vivaldi)—as well as the friendly and accommodating locals. We had no real plan other than to wander around and see what there was to see—which was a shame, because with a bit more foresight we might have planned a visit to nearby Murano, the suburb responsible for keeping Venice’s finest gift shops stocked.

The Spittin’ Image
Murano is a cluster of five small, closely spaced islands in the Venetian lagoon, less than 2 miles (about 3km) north of the city of Venice. Murano’s islands, like those of Venice, are linked by bridges and separated by canals; in fact, nearly everything about the town seems to be an extension of its much larger neighbor nearby. That in itself makes Murano an interesting and picturesque place, but it’s best known for its legendary glass craftsmen. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Fire Breathing

Don’t try this at home

As is clear from the many email messages I receive, readers of Interesting Thing of the Day are, on the whole, intelligent, educated, and clear-thinking individuals. You are not prone to careless or reckless behavior, and you have more than a fair measure of common sense. So I felt it unnecessary to point out, for example, when writing about coffee, that it is a hot beverage that could burn you if you are not careful. I did not have to mention that if you enter a wife-carrying contest you should lift with your legs, not with your back. And I felt no need to caution you against saying “My, how lovely you look today” when speaking Klingon. You are smart enough to figure all these things out on your own.

And yet, after reading many Web sites about fire breathing—each of which begins with a stern warning and disclaimer in large bold letters—I feel strangely compelled to point out that actually attempting to breathe fire is an incredibly bad idea. However impressive it may appear, and however many circus performers may have done it all their lives, I must urge you in the strongest possible terms to resist any temptation to bring fire, or indeed flammable substances generally, into proximity with your mouth. If you fail to heed this warning and in so doing suffer disfiguring burns, cancer, loss of important body parts, or death, well, don’t say I didn’t warn you. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Raku

Zen and the art of tea bowls

I understand coffee. I know where it comes from, how it’s processed, how to prepare it in numerous ways, and how much I enjoy drinking it. When it comes to tea, though, I’m out of my element. It’s not that I’m unfamiliar with tea—I’ve got probably a dozen varieties in my kitchen, and I have at least learned how to brew it in a way that wouldn’t cause my British friends to scowl. But beyond the basic concept of using hot water to extract flavor from dried leaves are many subtleties that utterly confound me. On a couple of occasions, for instance, I’ve enjoyed sharing tea with a friend who’s a Buddhist monk. He can discern those infinitesimal hints of flavor and ineffable variations in character that separate one tea from another, in much the same way a wine connoisseur distinguishes a note of vanilla here, a slight whiff of cherry there.

Then there’s the tea ritual. For me, tea has always been a mere beverage, but in many parts of the world, tea must be prepared and consumed according to a strict set of protocols and using just the right implements. Perhaps the best known custom is the Japanese tea ceremony, a ritual that in its most elaborate form can last hours. Japanese tea rituals were heavily influenced by Zen, which accounts for the simplicity, deliberateness, and mindfulness that customarily accompany ceremonial tea drinking, making it more of a meditative practice than an act of hydration. Every element of the ceremony, from the cloth used to clean the tea scoop to the ladle used to transfer the water must be made, used, and cared for in just the right way. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Microbial Fuel Cells

Electricity from bugs

Fuel cells have a very high buzz factor these days. These seemingly magical devices create electricity from hydrogen and oxygen—producing pure water as their only byproduct. Several major cities already have fleets of buses that use fuel cells. Auto manufacturers promise us that within a few years, we’ll be able to buy fuel cell-powered cars that create no pollution at all—thus enabling us to reduce our dependence on oil and slow global warming while saving money with inexpensive hydrogen fuel. Spacecraft have used fuel cells for decades to produce electricity, since the hydrogen and oxygen they need are both conveniently available in onboard tanks. And in the near future, fuel cells may even be put to more prosaic uses, powering notebook computers, cell phones, and other personal electronic devices.

Ship of Fuels
But although fuel cell technology is by no means new, it has yet to achieve large-scale commercial success. One of the main reasons is that hydrogen, the most common fuel, is surprisingly difficult to obtain. Even though hydrogen is present in water, air, and organic matter of all sorts, pure hydrogen is harder to come by. If you use electrolysis to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen so that you can use the hydrogen as fuel to produce electricity, you get into a sort of vicious cycle of energy consumption—it takes almost as much energy to produce the hydrogen in the first place as the hydrogen will later provide when used as fuel. Once you have the pure hydrogen, it’s a pain to store and deliver it safely. So the net cost is fairly high, and the net efficiency is fairly low. If only there were a handier way to obtain hydrogen—or better yet, a fuel cell design that used a more conveniently obtained fuel. Both of these hopes may be met by microbial fuel cells (MFCs), which use bacteria to process virtually any organic matter and turn it into electricity. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Vegetable Oil as Diesel Fuel

Fries and a fill-up

While out for a walk in my neighborhood, I noticed an otherwise ordinary-looking pickup truck with a big sign on the back that said “This vehicle powered by 100% used vegetable oil.” That’s nice, I thought, very environmentally conscious and all—as San Franciscans are known to be. I wondered briefly about the technological issues involved in getting a truck to run on vegetable oil, information that surely would be available a few clicks away on the Web. But I also wondered about maintaining a fuel supply. If you’re on a trip and the fuel gauge starts getting low, a gas station would presumably do you no good. Do you start looking for a doughnut shop or a fast-food joint where you can score some used oil? Is there enough to go around? And will it really end up being less expensive than conventional diesel fuel?

The first claim I discovered sounded too good to be true: diesel engines can, without modification, run on vegetable oil—just like that. Now, I’ll be the first to admit I know precious little about engines, but this revelation puzzled me. If true, then why even bother with petroleum-based fuel in the first place? As it turns out, that claim is only approximately true—some diesel engines can run on some kinds of vegetable oil under some conditions without problems. (This trick doesn’t work with gasoline engines, because the sparks produced cannot ignite vegetable oil.) Still, the fact that this can happen at all seemed pretty amazing to me. It shouldn’t have: had I read about diesel engines more carefully when I was researching fire pistons, I would have learned that the first diesel engines ran on peanut oil, and that Rudolf Diesel’s original idea was that this would be a perfect solution for areas with limited access to petroleum. Today, however, nearly all diesel engines are designed to work with petroleum-based fuel, so running such engines on vegetable oil is not entirely straightforward. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Fire Pistons

The primitive hi-tech fire starters

I’ve never been much of a camping enthusiast. It’s not that I don’t appreciate all the great gadgets associated with camping, and I certainly enjoy hiking, fresh air, and getting away from it all. But after toting all our high-tech apparatus into the middle of nowhere, setting up a tent, and rolling out the sleeping bags, I invariably think to myself: this is an awful lot of work for very little comfort. At home I would have had a nice squishy mattress, a flush toilet, clean water, and no mosquitoes. Why am I doing this again? Then it comes time to build a fire and I discover some cruel corollary of Murphy’s Law at work. On those few days I ever have to attempt this task, it’s always windy, damp, or both. Of course, I know that when matches fail, I can always bring out some specially flammable substance designed expressly for the pyrotechnically challenged. But the latest rage in fire-starting equipment is actually centuries old and uses no chemicals, sparks, or even metal components. Meet the fire piston: a deceptively simple tool that uses compressed air to start a blaze in just seconds.

Light Me Up
A fire piston is a small cylindrical object usually made of wood, bone, or plastic. It consists of two main parts: an outer casing, which is hollow but closed on one end, and the piston itself—a rod or plunger that fits the hole in the casing perfectly and whose tip reaches almost, but not quite, to the stoppered end of the tube. The tip of the piston has a small indentation or hole, and just behind the tip is usually a gasket of some kind to ensure an airtight seal—perhaps a rubber O-ring or simply some waxed string. In other words, very basic parts that require little technological sophistication to create. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Egocasting

Personalized entertainment

Guest Article by Rajagopal Sukumar

An interesting phenomenon is gaining momentum in the world of media as people begin to use technology to take control of when, where, and how they consume content. Christine Rosen wrote a seminal article “The Age of Egocasting” in The New Atlantis that describes this phenomenon in great detail. Rosen takes the reader through a fascinating journey covering the history of various technological advances such as the TV, remote control, VCR, TiVo, and iPod, and explains how they have now culminated in the capability to create a personal bubble, inside which we as “content consumers” are the sole masters of what we see and hear. Rosen bestowed on this phenomenon the catchy name “Egocasting” and went on to define it as “the thoroughly personalized and extremely narrow pursuit of one’s personal taste, where we exercise an unparalleled degree of control over what we watch and what we hear.”

Although Rosen describes how content consumption patterns are changing, the content being consumed in Rosen’s world is still exclusively produced by the mainstream media (MSM, as it is sometimes called these days). Actually, technology is having a very big impact on the content production side as well, and is giving rise to a new media that may one day be a big powerful rival to the MSM. Before we review the changing power equation, let’s take a quick look at the main sources of power the MSM possesses: [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Orgone

The strange theories of Wilhelm Reich

Back when I wrote about the Sedona energy vortexes, a friend of mine said I should look into something called “orgone”—apparently some sort of healing energy discovered by a certain Dr. Wilhelm Reich. I spent a couple of hours reading the Web sites my friend recommended, by the end of which time I was completely baffled. I had read things about alien encounters, inscrutable contraptions that were supposed to impart various vague health benefits, and other claims so bizarre that I simply couldn’t make any sense of them. The material was so opaque and confusing that I couldn’t even produce a coherent definition of orgone, much less write an article on the subject. Many months later, after my article on the Egely Wheel, the same friend again suggested I write about orgone, so I once again spent some time on the Web, trying to make heads or tails of it. Again, I failed. Then, one day recently, I happened to notice that Cecil Adams wrote about Reich and his theories several years ago in “The Straight Dope.” The quote that caught my eye was: “Reich was a nut.” At last, a clear and concise statement I could comprehend. Perhaps there was hope after all—I just needed to look in the right places.

Now, of course, I’ve biased you already: you’re going to think that what I’m about to describe is pure hogwash. And frankly, I think you’ll be right. As much as I try to maintain an open mind—and a charitable attitude toward those with beliefs much different from my own—I have my limits. But the story of orgone, despite its dubious claims, is nevertheless quite interesting. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

InterPlay

Getting grown-ups back into their bodies

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

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

•••••

From the archives…

Parkour

Turning a city into an obstacle course

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

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

•••••

From the archives…

Operation Migration

Follow that airplane!

The exact techniques migrating birds use to find their way across thousands of miles to exactly the same spots year after year are only partially understood. Watching for landmarks is clearly part of it—but equally clearly, it’s not the whole story. Certain types of birds have been shown to rely only minimally on vision, in some cases apparently getting their bearings from the Earth’s magnetic field. Be that as it may, some bird species have strong migratory instincts, while others (including geese, ducks, and cranes) must be taught the way to and from their winter homes. A single demonstration is enough to program the route into a bird’s memory, but what happens when a bird never gets that first demonstration? It has no idea where to go, and as a result, its survival is threatened if it can’t find enough food when the seasons change.

This situation poses a unique problem for certain birds raised in captivity, such as the whooping crane (Grus americana)—the tallest flying bird in North America, with a height of up to 5 feet (about 1.5m) and a wingspan as wide as 8 feet (about 2.5m). By the middle of the 20th century, the worldwide population of wild whooping cranes had dipped to only 15, bringing the species perilously close to extinction. (A century earlier, there had been about 1,400 of them—and even that was a dangerously small number.) As a result of diligent conservation efforts, those few remaining birds were protected in the wild, and their numbers gradually began to increase; today, that flock numbers about 200. Meanwhile, some of their eggs were hatched in captivity to breed a “backup” flock, in case some natural disaster (such as a hurricane) wiped out the others. After several years of careful breeding and release, a non-migratory flock of nearly 100 is now living in Florida. However, what everyone wanted to see was the reestablishment of another migratory flock—a group of whooping cranes that spent their summers in Wisconsin and their winters in Florida, just as other flocks had done decades earlier. But although the birds could be bred and released successfully, there was no apparent way to teach them a safe way to fly from one home to the other. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Portmanteau

When words intertwingle

One of the great things about language—any language, but I’m thinking especially of English—is how badly you can mangle it and still be understood. All spoken language has a certain amount of built-in redundancy, so you can figure out, for example, what would have come at the end of this sentence if I’d bothered to… And the same is true at the level of individual words. If I say “gonna” instead of “going to” or “kinda” instead of “kind of,” you’ll still know exactly what I’m trying to say.

What Isn’t in a Word
When I was studying linguistics, I ran across quite a few terms that refer, in one sense or another, to missing sounds (intentional or otherwise). Here are a few examples:

  • contraction: a word formed from two or more other words, as in isn’t from “is not” or it’s from “it has”< [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Passenger Pigeons

The great American extinction

I have a confession to make. Even though my wife, Morgen, is an endless fount of interesting topics, when she suggested that I write about passenger pigeons, my first reaction was a yawn. How interesting can pigeons be? There are bazillions of them out there—I practically trip over them walking down the sidewalk every day. “But passenger pigeons are extinct,” she said. So are lots of animals, and that’s very sad, but it still doesn’t make them particularly interesting to the general public. She kept insisting that no, really, this particular kind of extinct pigeon is truly fascinating, and I kept displaying a complete lack of enthusiasm. Finally, she started reading some facts off a Web page. After the first couple of items, I thought, “Yeah, OK, that’s a bit interesting, but if that’s all there is to it…” Only it wasn’t. She kept reading—and I kept saying “Wow.” Even I had to admit, yes, the story of the passenger pigeon is quite interesting. So by way of penance, allow me to present the poop (as it were) on passenger pigeons.

The last passenger pigeon in the world died less than 100 years ago—in 1914, according to most reports. In fact, we know exactly when and where the species went extinct: Tuesday, September 1, 1914, at 1:00 p.m. Eastern time at the Cincinnati Zoo. We even know the last bird’s name: Martha. She was 29 years old. It’s rather extraordinary that we should have such detailed and precise information about the moment when a species meets its demise—the passenger pigeon is almost certainly unique in that regard. What’s even more extraordinary is that just a century or so earlier, passenger pigeons had been more numerous than any other bird in North America—numbering in the billions. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Space Pens

What to use when your writing lacks gravity

For several years as a child, I was convinced that I would be an astronaut when I grew up. I loved everything having to do with space and rockets; I collected photographs and magazines about space travel; I begged my parents to take me to the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. when it opened in 1976, and of course I also watched Star Trek reruns religiously. There simply could be no other occupation worth pursuing, and nothing could dissuade me from my passionate desire to go into space. Well, maybe one thing. I was watching the TV coverage of some space launch or another. It followed the astronauts through all the preparations they underwent leading up to the mission. And before they got into the rocket, a doctor gave them shots of some kind. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Injections? Just to go into space? No way. I’d have to find a safer profession. And from that very moment I knew I’d never be an astronaut.

Pen-t Up Ambitions
Although my dream of traveling into space had met an untimely end, I was still extremely happy to watch other people do it, and I was particularly interested in the paraphernalia of space flight—the spacesuits, the computers, the freeze-dried meals, and so on. One day I was leafing through a catalog and I saw something that made my jaw drop: the Fisher Space Pen. “Just like the astronauts use!” it said. I was already drinking Tang, so that became my next object of desire. This pen, so the catalog said, would write in zero gravity—and, as a bonus, it could also write upside down, underwater, in a vacuum, on glossy paper, in extremely hot or cold environments, or even on greasy surfaces. And it was very shiny and futuristic-looking. Wow. I had to have one. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Optical Telegraphs

18th century wireless telecommunications

Let’s say you’re besieged by a bunch of Orcs and Nazgûl in some fictional city in the realm of Gondor. And let’s say your ancient allies from far away in the land of Rohan are your only faint hope for rescue. How might you call out for help over such a great distance, especially with a bunch of mountains between you and Rohan? You would ignite a large pile of firewood that has been waiting ready at the top of a tower for just such a purpose. And many miles away, on the top of the nearest mountain, a beacon-warden would notice this fire and light one of his own. And then the warden on the next mountain over would do the same thing, and so on, until seven mountains later, your friends saw the fire nearest them and got the message.

Tolkien mentioned this event only in passing on the opening page of his book The Return of the King, but Peter Jackson made it into a dramatic scene in his Oscar-winning 2003 film version of the story. It was a moving and visually stunning portrayal of a desperate plea for aid that, given the circumstances and technological resources available, could not have been conveyed in any other way. And if you understand this long-distance visual method of relaying information, you’ve grasped the basics of the optical telegraph, which predated the more commonly known electric telegraph by decades. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Murano Glass

The mirror of Venice

Several years ago, on our first trip to Europe, Morgen and I tried very hard to visit as many sites as possible on our “must-see” list, which meant very short stops and lots of travel time. Venice was one of those obligatory stops, and we were both very sad to leave after only a few days, during which we had managed to see just a tiny sliver of the city. I was impressed by the canals, the architecture, the churches, the museums, and the omnipresent music (everywhere we turned, some little chamber orchestra was playing Vivaldi)—as well as the friendly and accommodating locals. We had no real plan other than to wander around and see what there was to see—which was a shame, because with a bit more foresight we might have planned a visit to nearby Murano, the suburb responsible for keeping Venice’s finest gift shops stocked.

The Spittin’ Image
Murano is a cluster of five small, closely spaced islands in the Venetian lagoon, less than 2 miles (about 3km) north of the city of Venice. Murano’s islands, like those of Venice, are linked by bridges and separated by canals; in fact, nearly everything about the town seems to be an extension of its much larger neighbor nearby. That in itself makes Murano an interesting and picturesque place, but it’s best known for its legendary glass craftsmen. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Fire Breathing

Don’t try this at home

As is clear from the many email messages I receive, readers of Interesting Thing of the Day are, on the whole, intelligent, educated, and clear-thinking individuals. You are not prone to careless or reckless behavior, and you have more than a fair measure of common sense. So I felt it unnecessary to point out, for example, when writing about coffee, that it is a hot beverage that could burn you if you are not careful. I did not have to mention that if you enter a wife-carrying contest you should lift with your legs, not with your back. And I felt no need to caution you against saying “My, how lovely you look today” when speaking Klingon. You are smart enough to figure all these things out on your own.

And yet, after reading many Web sites about fire breathing—each of which begins with a stern warning and disclaimer in large bold letters—I feel strangely compelled to point out that actually attempting to breathe fire is an incredibly bad idea. However impressive it may appear, and however many circus performers may have done it all their lives, I must urge you in the strongest possible terms to resist any temptation to bring fire, or indeed flammable substances generally, into proximity with your mouth. If you fail to heed this warning and in so doing suffer disfiguring burns, cancer, loss of important body parts, or death, well, don’t say I didn’t warn you. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Raku

Zen and the art of tea bowls

I understand coffee. I know where it comes from, how it’s processed, how to prepare it in numerous ways, and how much I enjoy drinking it. When it comes to tea, though, I’m out of my element. It’s not that I’m unfamiliar with tea—I’ve got probably a dozen varieties in my kitchen, and I have at least learned how to brew it in a way that wouldn’t cause my British friends to scowl. But beyond the basic concept of using hot water to extract flavor from dried leaves are many subtleties that utterly confound me. On a couple of occasions, for instance, I’ve enjoyed sharing tea with a friend who’s a Buddhist monk. He can discern those infinitesimal hints of flavor and ineffable variations in character that separate one tea from another, in much the same way a wine connoisseur distinguishes a note of vanilla here, a slight whiff of cherry there.

Then there’s the tea ritual. For me, tea has always been a mere beverage, but in many parts of the world, tea must be prepared and consumed according to a strict set of protocols and using just the right implements. Perhaps the best known custom is the Japanese tea ceremony, a ritual that in its most elaborate form can last hours. Japanese tea rituals were heavily influenced by Zen, which accounts for the simplicity, deliberateness, and mindfulness that customarily accompany ceremonial tea drinking, making it more of a meditative practice than an act of hydration. Every element of the ceremony, from the cloth used to clean the tea scoop to the ladle used to transfer the water must be made, used, and cared for in just the right way. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Microbial Fuel Cells

Electricity from bugs

Fuel cells have a very high buzz factor these days. These seemingly magical devices create electricity from hydrogen and oxygen—producing pure water as their only byproduct. Several major cities already have fleets of buses that use fuel cells. Auto manufacturers promise us that within a few years, we’ll be able to buy fuel cell-powered cars that create no pollution at all—thus enabling us to reduce our dependence on oil and slow global warming while saving money with inexpensive hydrogen fuel. Spacecraft have used fuel cells for decades to produce electricity, since the hydrogen and oxygen they need are both conveniently available in onboard tanks. And in the near future, fuel cells may even be put to more prosaic uses, powering notebook computers, cell phones, and other personal electronic devices.

Ship of Fuels
But although fuel cell technology is by no means new, it has yet to achieve large-scale commercial success. One of the main reasons is that hydrogen, the most common fuel, is surprisingly difficult to obtain. Even though hydrogen is present in water, air, and organic matter of all sorts, pure hydrogen is harder to come by. If you use electrolysis to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen so that you can use the hydrogen as fuel to produce electricity, you get into a sort of vicious cycle of energy consumption—it takes almost as much energy to produce the hydrogen in the first place as the hydrogen will later provide when used as fuel. Once you have the pure hydrogen, it’s a pain to store and deliver it safely. So the net cost is fairly high, and the net efficiency is fairly low. If only there were a handier way to obtain hydrogen—or better yet, a fuel cell design that used a more conveniently obtained fuel. Both of these hopes may be met by microbial fuel cells (MFCs), which use bacteria to process virtually any organic matter and turn it into electricity. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Vegetable Oil as Diesel Fuel

Fries and a fill-up

While out for a walk in my neighborhood, I noticed an otherwise ordinary-looking pickup truck with a big sign on the back that said “This vehicle powered by 100% used vegetable oil.” That’s nice, I thought, very environmentally conscious and all—as San Franciscans are known to be. I wondered briefly about the technological issues involved in getting a truck to run on vegetable oil, information that surely would be available a few clicks away on the Web. But I also wondered about maintaining a fuel supply. If you’re on a trip and the fuel gauge starts getting low, a gas station would presumably do you no good. Do you start looking for a doughnut shop or a fast-food joint where you can score some used oil? Is there enough to go around? And will it really end up being less expensive than conventional diesel fuel?

The first claim I discovered sounded too good to be true: diesel engines can, without modification, run on vegetable oil—just like that. Now, I’ll be the first to admit I know precious little about engines, but this revelation puzzled me. If true, then why even bother with petroleum-based fuel in the first place? As it turns out, that claim is only approximately true—some diesel engines can run on some kinds of vegetable oil under some conditions without problems. (This trick doesn’t work with gasoline engines, because the sparks produced cannot ignite vegetable oil.) Still, the fact that this can happen at all seemed pretty amazing to me. It shouldn’t have: had I read about diesel engines more carefully when I was researching fire pistons, I would have learned that the first diesel engines ran on peanut oil, and that Rudolf Diesel’s original idea was that this would be a perfect solution for areas with limited access to petroleum. Today, however, nearly all diesel engines are designed to work with petroleum-based fuel, so running such engines on vegetable oil is not entirely straightforward. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Fire Pistons

The primitive hi-tech fire starters

I’ve never been much of a camping enthusiast. It’s not that I don’t appreciate all the great gadgets associated with camping, and I certainly enjoy hiking, fresh air, and getting away from it all. But after toting all our high-tech apparatus into the middle of nowhere, setting up a tent, and rolling out the sleeping bags, I invariably think to myself: this is an awful lot of work for very little comfort. At home I would have had a nice squishy mattress, a flush toilet, clean water, and no mosquitoes. Why am I doing this again? Then it comes time to build a fire and I discover some cruel corollary of Murphy’s Law at work. On those few days I ever have to attempt this task, it’s always windy, damp, or both. Of course, I know that when matches fail, I can always bring out some specially flammable substance designed expressly for the pyrotechnically challenged. But the latest rage in fire-starting equipment is actually centuries old and uses no chemicals, sparks, or even metal components. Meet the fire piston: a deceptively simple tool that uses compressed air to start a blaze in just seconds.

Light Me Up
A fire piston is a small cylindrical object usually made of wood, bone, or plastic. It consists of two main parts: an outer casing, which is hollow but closed on one end, and the piston itself—a rod or plunger that fits the hole in the casing perfectly and whose tip reaches almost, but not quite, to the stoppered end of the tube. The tip of the piston has a small indentation or hole, and just behind the tip is usually a gasket of some kind to ensure an airtight seal—perhaps a rubber O-ring or simply some waxed string. In other words, very basic parts that require little technological sophistication to create. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Egocasting

Personalized entertainment

Guest Article by Rajagopal Sukumar

An interesting phenomenon is gaining momentum in the world of media as people begin to use technology to take control of when, where, and how they consume content. Christine Rosen wrote a seminal article “The Age of Egocasting” in The New Atlantis that describes this phenomenon in great detail. Rosen takes the reader through a fascinating journey covering the history of various technological advances such as the TV, remote control, VCR, TiVo, and iPod, and explains how they have now culminated in the capability to create a personal bubble, inside which we as “content consumers” are the sole masters of what we see and hear. Rosen bestowed on this phenomenon the catchy name “Egocasting” and went on to define it as “the thoroughly personalized and extremely narrow pursuit of one’s personal taste, where we exercise an unparalleled degree of control over what we watch and what we hear.”

Although Rosen describes how content consumption patterns are changing, the content being consumed in Rosen’s world is still exclusively produced by the mainstream media (MSM, as it is sometimes called these days). Actually, technology is having a very big impact on the content production side as well, and is giving rise to a new media that may one day be a big powerful rival to the MSM. Before we review the changing power equation, let’s take a quick look at the main sources of power the MSM possesses: [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Orgone

The strange theories of Wilhelm Reich

Back when I wrote about the Sedona energy vortexes, a friend of mine said I should look into something called “orgone”—apparently some sort of healing energy discovered by a certain Dr. Wilhelm Reich. I spent a couple of hours reading the Web sites my friend recommended, by the end of which time I was completely baffled. I had read things about alien encounters, inscrutable contraptions that were supposed to impart various vague health benefits, and other claims so bizarre that I simply couldn’t make any sense of them. The material was so opaque and confusing that I couldn’t even produce a coherent definition of orgone, much less write an article on the subject. Many months later, after my article on the Egely Wheel, the same friend again suggested I write about orgone, so I once again spent some time on the Web, trying to make heads or tails of it. Again, I failed. Then, one day recently, I happened to notice that Cecil Adams wrote about Reich and his theories several years ago in “The Straight Dope.” The quote that caught my eye was: “Reich was a nut.” At last, a clear and concise statement I could comprehend. Perhaps there was hope after all—I just needed to look in the right places.

Now, of course, I’ve biased you already: you’re going to think that what I’m about to describe is pure hogwash. And frankly, I think you’ll be right. As much as I try to maintain an open mind—and a charitable attitude toward those with beliefs much different from my own—I have my limits. But the story of orgone, despite its dubious claims, is nevertheless quite interesting. [Article Continues…]

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