From the archives…

Pittsburghese

America’s most underappreciated dialect

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

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

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From the archives…

Hypercorrection

Taking the rules of language too far

For all its shortcomings, I’m quite fond of the English language and have always been a bit bothered when people misuse it. That’s not to say I never misuse it myself, or that I even believe in such a thing as perfect English. But whenever I hear or read a glaring grammatical mistake—especially one of the common ones that we were all warned against in school—I shake my head and sigh. It’s not that I won’t understand you if you say, “I ain’t got none,” but it’s awkward and inelegant, like using a pair of pliers to turn a screw. Even though it may accomplish your objective, there are better tools for the job. Of all my pet peeves about English, though, the biggest one was something that until recently I didn’t know the name for: a phenomenon known as hypercorrection.

Linguistic Overcompensation
Hypercorrection is what occurs when someone deliberately tries to avoid making an error in the use of language but overcompensates and in so doing makes another error. The classic example of hypercorrection is the use of “you and I” when “you and me” would actually be correct. The rule, which we were all taught as children, is never to use the word “me” in the subject of a sentence, so something like “You and me are friends” would be incorrect. But because this rule was so thoroughly hammered on, many people came to feel uncomfortable about using a construction like “you and me” anywhere in a sentence, even when it’s absolutely appropriate, as in “The inheritance will be split between you and me.” When someone mistakenly uses “you and I” in an attempt to avoid breaking the “don’t use ‘me’ incorrectly” rule, he or she has hypercorrected, which is to say, flubbed. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Klingon Language Institute

The final frontier of linguistic scholarship

When I was a child, I’d come home from school each day and immediately flip on the TV to watch my favorite show. The original Star Trek series—by then already well into its years of syndication—had me completely hooked. My mother used to tease me that I could summarize the plot of any episode by the time the first chord of the theme music had played. I was a serious junior Trekkie. Years later, during the run of Star Trek: The Next Generation, I rekindled my interest in the show, going so far as to attend a few Star Trek conventions.

Ironically, it was the conventions themselves that started to wear down my interest in Star Trek. I was a fan, but not the sort of fan who would wear a uniform, pointy ears, or a communicator badge. Not the sort who would memorize scripts, install Star Trek sounds on my computer, or collect autographs of the stars. Just an ordinary fan. The people I saw at conventions, on the other hand—these folks, God bless ‘em, were over-the-top Trek junkies. From the way they talked, dressed, spent their money, and generally obsessed over the show, it seemed as though many of them took it way, way too seriously. I liked Star Trek, but I never confused it with reality. The fan culture actually tainted my own experience of what should have been just a very good science fiction show. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Ventless Clothes Dryers

Laundry without the hot air

Nearly two years ago, my wife and I decided to move out of our trendy loft apartment and find a quieter, friendlier, and less expensive place to live. One of the criteria on our list was laundry facilities. Here in San Francisco, this is not a trivial issue. There may be plenty of beautiful Victorian and Edwardian buildings, but it’s relatively rare to find an apartment with a washer and dryer in the unit, and even shared laundry facilities in the basement or garage are not the norm. Although many thousands of people make their way to the neighborhood laundromat each week with a basket of clothes and a roll of quarters, that’s something we hoped to avoid. Years of experience have shown us that there is a positive correlation between convenience of laundry facilities and marital bliss. So we were most drawn to homes that had their own washer and dryer.

At a certain point in our search, we came across an otherwise suitable apartment that included a small extra room with hookups for a washing machine, but no space for a dryer—nor any way to vent one. That sounded to me like a problem that ought to have a technological solution, so I began searching the Web. Sure enough, I found a class of machines that used a single chamber for both washing and drying—put clothes in dirty, push a button, wait an hour or two, and take them out clean and dry. That by itself was interesting, but what really got my attention was the fact that these devices could dry clothes without any sort of vent. I had always assumed that hot, moist, linty air has to come out of a clothes dryer one way or another—it seemed like one of those cosmic truths you just couldn’t get around. But you can get around it, and surprisingly enough, one way to do so is to use water to dry your clothes. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Silicone Baking Products

The quiet revolution

One of my favorite pieces of kitchen kit has always been a simple plastic pastry mat I received as a gift many years ago. It did an excellent job of keeping flour off the counter and was imprinted with circles showing how far dough should be rolled out for different sizes of pie and tart pans. The mat also made it easier to get pie crusts into a pan, because you could invert the pan onto the dough and then just flip the entire assembly over. Try that with a countertop! Well, a few months ago, my faithful pastry mat finally gave up the ghost, so I headed down to my favorite kitchen supply store to buy a replacement.

Kitchen stores are dangerous places for me, just like hardware stores and computer stores. Everywhere I look there’s some newfangled, high-tech gadget calling out to me, and my mind races as I consider all the new things I could create if only I had this or that new tool. I thought I would be safe in the cookie-sheet aisle, though: all I needed was a simple US$5 plastic mat. And there it was, right next to…wait, what’s this? A $25 fiberglass-reinforced, nonstick, heatproof, silicone pastry mat! Although I did not immediately grasp how this technological wonder would improve on the old-fashioned plastic mat, it was shiny and had an irresistible texture, not to mention lots of impressive-looking words on the box. Guess which one I left with. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Heat-Resistant Chocolate

Defying the laws of confectionary

I once heard a rumor that almost provoked a deep moral crisis. I have always had a profound, passionate, and unshakable devotion to chocolate. Equally strong is my contempt for mosquitoes (and I’d say that even if I hadn’t contracted malaria during a summer in Indonesia when I was in college). The rumor, which turned out to be unsubstantiated, was that mosquitoes pollinate the cacao trees from which cocoa is produced. I had been worried, because I didn’t know how I could maintain my belief that mosquitoes were pure evil if they were necessary for the creation of pure good. Luckily, I did not have to grapple with this serious philosophical issue and I could go on loving chocolate and hating mosquitoes without feeling any inconsistency.

The only real shortcoming of chocolate is that it has an unfortunate tendency to melt when you don’t want it to. Hot chocolate, hot fudge, and chocolate syrup are all fine if that’s what you’re expecting, but if you open a chocolate bar that’s been in a hot car, let’s say, and find that it has liquefied, you’re not going to get the experience you want. Then, of course, there’s the perennial problem of chocolate melting in your hands even when the ambient temperature is low enough to keep it solid. This is, so the ads would have us believe, the entire reason for the existence of M&Ms—a brilliant technological solution that doesn’t actually keep the chocolate from melting but at least keeps it from making a mess. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Powder Coating

Paint’s shocking competitor

During the three years I lived in Vancouver, Canada, I worked at an office in the back of a large building in an industrial park. Our company didn’t own the building, and as the smallest of several tenants, we didn’t merit a sign on the front. The company that occupied the largest portion of the building, and therefore had its sign in large letters facing the street, was Hudson Powder Coating. I had to explain this to visitors when giving directions, and they were always confused. “What is powder coating anyway?” they usually asked. I had no idea. All I knew was that as I drove through the parking lot, I saw a lot of miscellaneous metal objects sitting in front of the company’s loading area—things like bike racks, lamp stands, car parts, and folding chairs. In the morning, these items were unfinished, and in the evening when I drove by again, they were brightly colored. I inferred from this that “powder coating” must be something like painting, though I didn’t quite see where the powder part came in.

For reasons I cannot fathom, I never actually bothered to find out what powder coating was at any time during the three years I worked in the building with the powder coating company. When I finally managed to look it up, it turned out to be much more interesting than I had imagined. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Tabacón Hot Springs

The relaxing side of the Arenal Volcano

Volcanoes are generally considered rather scary, unsafe places. There was that whole Pompeii incident, of course, not to mention Mt. St. Helens. Any sensible person knows that you don’t want to be anywhere near a volcano when it erupts, and that volcanoes have the nasty habit of erupting at unpredictable and very inconvenient times. Nevertheless, dozens of active volcanoes around the world have become major tourist destinations. PR types minimize the danger, of course (“Over 27 months without a tourist fatality!”), and, statistically speaking, the odds do indeed favor a safe visit. But many thousands of tourists take the risk because volcanoes are so strange and interesting. Most of us know volcanoes only from stories that are set in faraway places and therefore have a mythological character; seeing an active volcano in person seems a little bit like seeing a unicorn—something that doesn’t seem like it could really exist.

In central Costa Rica, the Arenal Volcano offers the quintessential volcano tourism experience. Practically the entire economy of the nearby town of La Fortuna is based on tourism. There are hotels, lodges, restaurants, tours, hikes, and activities of every description that cater to people who make the long drive to the area for one reason: to hear the rumble and catch a glimpse of spewing smoke, ash, and lava from Arenal. But by far the most famous (and most expensive) attraction besides the volcano itself is the Tabacón Hot Springs Resort & Spa. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Revenge of the Analog Clock

Time for a pie chart

Author Douglas Adams famously made fun of earthlings for being “so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.” Shortly before he died, Adams gave a talk at the University of California, Santa Barbara (not far from his home), at the end of which there was a brief question-and-answer session. A woman stood up and asked Adams the question that had been bothering her for decades: what did he have against digital watches? The crowd probably expected him to toss off a witty one-liner in response. Instead, he gave a very thoughtful answer that, in true Douglas Adams fashion, made ordinary human behavior seem self-evidently absurd.

After admitting that his comment had originally been written in the days when digital watches were themselves fairly primitive (and, ironically, required two hands to operate), Adams couched his complaint—appropriately—using an analogy. In the early days of personal computers, he said, people got very excited that their spreadsheet programs could finally create pie charts. This was considered a revolutionary advance, because as everyone knows, a pie chart visually represents a part-whole relationship in a way that is immediately obvious—a way that, to be more specific, mere columns of numbers did not. Well, the hands of an analog timepiece form wedges that look very much like a pie chart, and like a pie chart, they represent a sort of part-whole relationship in a way that requires a bare minimum of mental effort to comprehend. Not so digital timepieces, which for all their precision say nothing about the relationship of one time of day to another. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Handshake

Coming to grips with gestures of greeting

The other day I was at a restaurant with some friends, and one member of our party arrived a bit late. Before sitting down, he started heading toward the corner of the room, and when someone asked where he was going, he held up his hands and said, “Demunification.” Although I had never heard that word before, I understood immediately what he was saying: he was heading to the lavatory to wash his hands in order to “de-MUNI-fy” them—MUNI being short for San Francisco Municipal Railway, the transit authority that runs the city’s buses and streetcars. When you’re riding a bus or streetcar that’s so crowded you have to stand, you end up holding onto the handrails, which perpetually feel (and probably are) grimy from being handled by untold thousands of people before you. Almost everyone I know who rides MUNI habitually washes their hands as soon afterward as possible, which is probably an excellent idea.

From time to time I’m in some sort of social situation where a handshake is expected, but my hands (whether MUNIfied or not) are not necessarily clean. This always makes me feel awkward—it’s one thing to decline a handshake when my hands are covered with motor oil or pastry flour, but in the absence of visible contaminants, North Americans typically consider it an insult not to accept a handshake. Meanwhile, personal observation informs me that an unknown but excessively high percentage of men routinely leave public restrooms without washing their hands. Thus, shaking hands strikes me as a relatively unsanitary gesture of greeting. Not that I’m hypersensitive about germs, but this made me wonder: considering the wide range of alternatives, how did the handshake come to be the standard greeting in this society? And hygiene aside, how can we make sense of all its supposedly deep and symbolic meanings? [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Giving Away the Razor, Selling the Blades

The curious strategy of loss-leader marketing

One day I opened up my mailbox, and there inside was a box from Gillette containing a brand-new Mach3 razor. It turned out that the box was addressed to my neighbor, which is just as well: the idea of shaving with a triple-blade razor seemed a bit—excuse me—over the edge. That was just a few years ago, and since then, the Mach3 has been superseded by models with four and five blades, with or without a vibrating feature—the mind boggles. But the twin-blade Gillette SensorExcel razor I used for many years also came in the mail for free, and also, coincidentally, wasn’t addressed to me—I got it from a friend who didn’t want it. Still, exactly as Gillette hoped, I spent many, many dollars over the years on their obscenely overpriced blades before breaking down and buying an electric razor. Like countless other people, I was sucked in by the “give-away-the-razor-sell-the-blades” concept. Old-fashioned and counterintuitive, this marketing gimmick is still going strong.

Razor-Thin Profit Margins
Around 1900, a salesman named King Camp Gillette dreamed up the idea of disposable razor blades. Before that time, razor blades were thicker and were simply sharpened when dull—a time-consuming and imprecise (not to mention dangerous) process that no one enjoyed. Gillette’s innovation was to make the blades thin enough and inexpensive enough that they could simply be thrown away when they dulled. At first, he couldn’t sell the blades for as much money as it cost to make them, but then he had a wacky idea: he would give away the razor handles. People who got them perceived them as being valuable—but only when fitted with one of Gillette’s blades. So there was a subtle yet forceful psychological pressure to maintain that value by continually buying the blades. After a few months of blade sales, the cost of the handle was recovered and Gillette began to make a profit. Within a decade, Gillette’s company dominated the razor market and made its inventor extremely wealthy. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Unknown Woman of the Seine

Breathing new life into a mystery

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

Every year, thousands of tourists come to Paris to see one of the most famous faces in the world—Mona Lisa, or La Joconde as she’s known in France. With her enigmatic smile and serene beauty, the subject of Leonardo da Vinci’s painting has inspired both sincere admiration and endless speculation about her true identity (although most now agree that it is a portrait of Lisa del Giocondo, the wife of a Florentine silk merchant).

Although less well known, another image of a woman’s face once similarly fascinated and intrigued those who saw it, and gave rise to theories about its origin. Although her true identity is a mystery, the woman who inspired this image has come to be called “l’Inconnue de la Seine,” or the Unknown Woman of the Seine. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Truth About Bananas

Fingering the world’s most popular tropical fruit

When I was in college, I had a professor who was known for being a bit on the odd side. Although he was smart, friendly, and much loved by the students, he had some strange and inexplicable habits. For one thing, he had a very peculiar way of speaking, including about a dozen idiosyncratic phrases that he repeated over and over. A friend and I, when we got bored, used to sit in the back of the classroom and keep a tally of how many times he used each of these phrases. The professor always kept a pen clipped to his collar, even if he was wearing a shirt with a pocket (a practice that amused me so much I adopted it myself—and keep it up to this day). And he encouraged us, on multiple-choice exams, to write in our own answers in the margin if we didn’t like any of his.

Every now and then, this professor came to class with the sticker from a banana on his shirt. The brand varied, but the position did not: it was stuck right above the spot where his pen would be, if he had kept it in his pocket the way normal people do. We assumed it was just another one of his silly habits, but one day, a student actually asked him—during class—what was with the stickers. He replied, solemnly, “Oh. Yeah. Well, whenever I have a banana for breakfast that has a sticker on it, I put the sticker on my shirt to remind me of the suffering of the banana pickers in Latin America, who sometimes earn just 50¢ for a 12-hour day of work in grueling conditions. I wear it to show my solidarity with them, as a silent protest for better treatment.” From that day on, we saw the professor in a completely new light—and we started thinking about bananas differently too. As I was later to discover, almost nothing about bananas is as it seems. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Quantifying Despair and Depression

Keep swimming

Sometimes I make jokes about the exact extent to which some event has affected my mental state. For example, my wife will walk into my office with a plate of freshly baked cookies, and I’ll say, “Wow, I’m now 7% happier!” Of course, the reason it works as a joke is that happiness (or the lack thereof) is not only subjective, it’s multifaceted—I may be ecstatic about the cookies, yet still quite unhappy about my taxes.

Doctor, It Feels Like I’m Treading Water
All joking aside, I wondered whether there might be some way of measuring despair. We can certainly tell if it exists or not, and whether it feels severe. But surely psychiatrists have some sort of semi-objective scale of measurement, I figured. I couldn’t imagine one doctor saying to another, “My 10 a.m. is a Venti, but with some Prozac I’m sure we can get him down to a Tall.” So I began searching for references of scales used to measure despair or depression. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Equation of Time

When what you mean is not apparent

When someone asks me how I’m doing, I habitually answer, “Fine,” because that’s what social convention dictates—whether or not I really am fine. Most people probably don’t want to hear the detailed truth, and would be sorry they asked if I told them. Similarly, when people ask what I do for a living, more often than not they’re looking for a quick and easy way to categorize me, rather than a litany of the sundry and somewhat unconventional means by which I earn a living. So I tend to oblige with a short answer that requires no further discussion.

One day, however, I was at a party, and being in an uncharacteristically charitable mood, I decided to tell people what my occupation really is. One guy I spoke to—let’s call him “Bob” (for that is his name)—seemed particularly intrigued by the notion of Interesting Thing of the Day. He scribbled down the URL and promised me he’d send me some suggestions for topics to write about. A few days later, Bob sent me a link to a news article that led off with the following tantalizing claim: “Now we may know why the South lost the Civil War: Confederate time was about a half-hour slower than Yankee time.” I had heard of famous historical blunders based on confusion over differing calendars, but not over differing clocks. How cool. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Pittsburghese

America’s most underappreciated dialect

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

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

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From the archives…

Hypercorrection

Taking the rules of language too far

For all its shortcomings, I’m quite fond of the English language and have always been a bit bothered when people misuse it. That’s not to say I never misuse it myself, or that I even believe in such a thing as perfect English. But whenever I hear or read a glaring grammatical mistake—especially one of the common ones that we were all warned against in school—I shake my head and sigh. It’s not that I won’t understand you if you say, “I ain’t got none,” but it’s awkward and inelegant, like using a pair of pliers to turn a screw. Even though it may accomplish your objective, there are better tools for the job. Of all my pet peeves about English, though, the biggest one was something that until recently I didn’t know the name for: a phenomenon known as hypercorrection.

Linguistic Overcompensation
Hypercorrection is what occurs when someone deliberately tries to avoid making an error in the use of language but overcompensates and in so doing makes another error. The classic example of hypercorrection is the use of “you and I” when “you and me” would actually be correct. The rule, which we were all taught as children, is never to use the word “me” in the subject of a sentence, so something like “You and me are friends” would be incorrect. But because this rule was so thoroughly hammered on, many people came to feel uncomfortable about using a construction like “you and me” anywhere in a sentence, even when it’s absolutely appropriate, as in “The inheritance will be split between you and me.” When someone mistakenly uses “you and I” in an attempt to avoid breaking the “don’t use ‘me’ incorrectly” rule, he or she has hypercorrected, which is to say, flubbed. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Klingon Language Institute

The final frontier of linguistic scholarship

When I was a child, I’d come home from school each day and immediately flip on the TV to watch my favorite show. The original Star Trek series—by then already well into its years of syndication—had me completely hooked. My mother used to tease me that I could summarize the plot of any episode by the time the first chord of the theme music had played. I was a serious junior Trekkie. Years later, during the run of Star Trek: The Next Generation, I rekindled my interest in the show, going so far as to attend a few Star Trek conventions.

Ironically, it was the conventions themselves that started to wear down my interest in Star Trek. I was a fan, but not the sort of fan who would wear a uniform, pointy ears, or a communicator badge. Not the sort who would memorize scripts, install Star Trek sounds on my computer, or collect autographs of the stars. Just an ordinary fan. The people I saw at conventions, on the other hand—these folks, God bless ‘em, were over-the-top Trek junkies. From the way they talked, dressed, spent their money, and generally obsessed over the show, it seemed as though many of them took it way, way too seriously. I liked Star Trek, but I never confused it with reality. The fan culture actually tainted my own experience of what should have been just a very good science fiction show. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Ventless Clothes Dryers

Laundry without the hot air

Nearly two years ago, my wife and I decided to move out of our trendy loft apartment and find a quieter, friendlier, and less expensive place to live. One of the criteria on our list was laundry facilities. Here in San Francisco, this is not a trivial issue. There may be plenty of beautiful Victorian and Edwardian buildings, but it’s relatively rare to find an apartment with a washer and dryer in the unit, and even shared laundry facilities in the basement or garage are not the norm. Although many thousands of people make their way to the neighborhood laundromat each week with a basket of clothes and a roll of quarters, that’s something we hoped to avoid. Years of experience have shown us that there is a positive correlation between convenience of laundry facilities and marital bliss. So we were most drawn to homes that had their own washer and dryer.

At a certain point in our search, we came across an otherwise suitable apartment that included a small extra room with hookups for a washing machine, but no space for a dryer—nor any way to vent one. That sounded to me like a problem that ought to have a technological solution, so I began searching the Web. Sure enough, I found a class of machines that used a single chamber for both washing and drying—put clothes in dirty, push a button, wait an hour or two, and take them out clean and dry. That by itself was interesting, but what really got my attention was the fact that these devices could dry clothes without any sort of vent. I had always assumed that hot, moist, linty air has to come out of a clothes dryer one way or another—it seemed like one of those cosmic truths you just couldn’t get around. But you can get around it, and surprisingly enough, one way to do so is to use water to dry your clothes. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Silicone Baking Products

The quiet revolution

One of my favorite pieces of kitchen kit has always been a simple plastic pastry mat I received as a gift many years ago. It did an excellent job of keeping flour off the counter and was imprinted with circles showing how far dough should be rolled out for different sizes of pie and tart pans. The mat also made it easier to get pie crusts into a pan, because you could invert the pan onto the dough and then just flip the entire assembly over. Try that with a countertop! Well, a few months ago, my faithful pastry mat finally gave up the ghost, so I headed down to my favorite kitchen supply store to buy a replacement.

Kitchen stores are dangerous places for me, just like hardware stores and computer stores. Everywhere I look there’s some newfangled, high-tech gadget calling out to me, and my mind races as I consider all the new things I could create if only I had this or that new tool. I thought I would be safe in the cookie-sheet aisle, though: all I needed was a simple US$5 plastic mat. And there it was, right next to…wait, what’s this? A $25 fiberglass-reinforced, nonstick, heatproof, silicone pastry mat! Although I did not immediately grasp how this technological wonder would improve on the old-fashioned plastic mat, it was shiny and had an irresistible texture, not to mention lots of impressive-looking words on the box. Guess which one I left with. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Heat-Resistant Chocolate

Defying the laws of confectionary

I once heard a rumor that almost provoked a deep moral crisis. I have always had a profound, passionate, and unshakable devotion to chocolate. Equally strong is my contempt for mosquitoes (and I’d say that even if I hadn’t contracted malaria during a summer in Indonesia when I was in college). The rumor, which turned out to be unsubstantiated, was that mosquitoes pollinate the cacao trees from which cocoa is produced. I had been worried, because I didn’t know how I could maintain my belief that mosquitoes were pure evil if they were necessary for the creation of pure good. Luckily, I did not have to grapple with this serious philosophical issue and I could go on loving chocolate and hating mosquitoes without feeling any inconsistency.

The only real shortcoming of chocolate is that it has an unfortunate tendency to melt when you don’t want it to. Hot chocolate, hot fudge, and chocolate syrup are all fine if that’s what you’re expecting, but if you open a chocolate bar that’s been in a hot car, let’s say, and find that it has liquefied, you’re not going to get the experience you want. Then, of course, there’s the perennial problem of chocolate melting in your hands even when the ambient temperature is low enough to keep it solid. This is, so the ads would have us believe, the entire reason for the existence of M&Ms—a brilliant technological solution that doesn’t actually keep the chocolate from melting but at least keeps it from making a mess. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Powder Coating

Paint’s shocking competitor

During the three years I lived in Vancouver, Canada, I worked at an office in the back of a large building in an industrial park. Our company didn’t own the building, and as the smallest of several tenants, we didn’t merit a sign on the front. The company that occupied the largest portion of the building, and therefore had its sign in large letters facing the street, was Hudson Powder Coating. I had to explain this to visitors when giving directions, and they were always confused. “What is powder coating anyway?” they usually asked. I had no idea. All I knew was that as I drove through the parking lot, I saw a lot of miscellaneous metal objects sitting in front of the company’s loading area—things like bike racks, lamp stands, car parts, and folding chairs. In the morning, these items were unfinished, and in the evening when I drove by again, they were brightly colored. I inferred from this that “powder coating” must be something like painting, though I didn’t quite see where the powder part came in.

For reasons I cannot fathom, I never actually bothered to find out what powder coating was at any time during the three years I worked in the building with the powder coating company. When I finally managed to look it up, it turned out to be much more interesting than I had imagined. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Tabacón Hot Springs

The relaxing side of the Arenal Volcano

Volcanoes are generally considered rather scary, unsafe places. There was that whole Pompeii incident, of course, not to mention Mt. St. Helens. Any sensible person knows that you don’t want to be anywhere near a volcano when it erupts, and that volcanoes have the nasty habit of erupting at unpredictable and very inconvenient times. Nevertheless, dozens of active volcanoes around the world have become major tourist destinations. PR types minimize the danger, of course (“Over 27 months without a tourist fatality!”), and, statistically speaking, the odds do indeed favor a safe visit. But many thousands of tourists take the risk because volcanoes are so strange and interesting. Most of us know volcanoes only from stories that are set in faraway places and therefore have a mythological character; seeing an active volcano in person seems a little bit like seeing a unicorn—something that doesn’t seem like it could really exist.

In central Costa Rica, the Arenal Volcano offers the quintessential volcano tourism experience. Practically the entire economy of the nearby town of La Fortuna is based on tourism. There are hotels, lodges, restaurants, tours, hikes, and activities of every description that cater to people who make the long drive to the area for one reason: to hear the rumble and catch a glimpse of spewing smoke, ash, and lava from Arenal. But by far the most famous (and most expensive) attraction besides the volcano itself is the Tabacón Hot Springs Resort & Spa. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Revenge of the Analog Clock

Time for a pie chart

Author Douglas Adams famously made fun of earthlings for being “so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.” Shortly before he died, Adams gave a talk at the University of California, Santa Barbara (not far from his home), at the end of which there was a brief question-and-answer session. A woman stood up and asked Adams the question that had been bothering her for decades: what did he have against digital watches? The crowd probably expected him to toss off a witty one-liner in response. Instead, he gave a very thoughtful answer that, in true Douglas Adams fashion, made ordinary human behavior seem self-evidently absurd.

After admitting that his comment had originally been written in the days when digital watches were themselves fairly primitive (and, ironically, required two hands to operate), Adams couched his complaint—appropriately—using an analogy. In the early days of personal computers, he said, people got very excited that their spreadsheet programs could finally create pie charts. This was considered a revolutionary advance, because as everyone knows, a pie chart visually represents a part-whole relationship in a way that is immediately obvious—a way that, to be more specific, mere columns of numbers did not. Well, the hands of an analog timepiece form wedges that look very much like a pie chart, and like a pie chart, they represent a sort of part-whole relationship in a way that requires a bare minimum of mental effort to comprehend. Not so digital timepieces, which for all their precision say nothing about the relationship of one time of day to another. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Handshake

Coming to grips with gestures of greeting

The other day I was at a restaurant with some friends, and one member of our party arrived a bit late. Before sitting down, he started heading toward the corner of the room, and when someone asked where he was going, he held up his hands and said, “Demunification.” Although I had never heard that word before, I understood immediately what he was saying: he was heading to the lavatory to wash his hands in order to “de-MUNI-fy” them—MUNI being short for San Francisco Municipal Railway, the transit authority that runs the city’s buses and streetcars. When you’re riding a bus or streetcar that’s so crowded you have to stand, you end up holding onto the handrails, which perpetually feel (and probably are) grimy from being handled by untold thousands of people before you. Almost everyone I know who rides MUNI habitually washes their hands as soon afterward as possible, which is probably an excellent idea.

From time to time I’m in some sort of social situation where a handshake is expected, but my hands (whether MUNIfied or not) are not necessarily clean. This always makes me feel awkward—it’s one thing to decline a handshake when my hands are covered with motor oil or pastry flour, but in the absence of visible contaminants, North Americans typically consider it an insult not to accept a handshake. Meanwhile, personal observation informs me that an unknown but excessively high percentage of men routinely leave public restrooms without washing their hands. Thus, shaking hands strikes me as a relatively unsanitary gesture of greeting. Not that I’m hypersensitive about germs, but this made me wonder: considering the wide range of alternatives, how did the handshake come to be the standard greeting in this society? And hygiene aside, how can we make sense of all its supposedly deep and symbolic meanings? [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Giving Away the Razor, Selling the Blades

The curious strategy of loss-leader marketing

One day I opened up my mailbox, and there inside was a box from Gillette containing a brand-new Mach3 razor. It turned out that the box was addressed to my neighbor, which is just as well: the idea of shaving with a triple-blade razor seemed a bit—excuse me—over the edge. That was just a few years ago, and since then, the Mach3 has been superseded by models with four and five blades, with or without a vibrating feature—the mind boggles. But the twin-blade Gillette SensorExcel razor I used for many years also came in the mail for free, and also, coincidentally, wasn’t addressed to me—I got it from a friend who didn’t want it. Still, exactly as Gillette hoped, I spent many, many dollars over the years on their obscenely overpriced blades before breaking down and buying an electric razor. Like countless other people, I was sucked in by the “give-away-the-razor-sell-the-blades” concept. Old-fashioned and counterintuitive, this marketing gimmick is still going strong.

Razor-Thin Profit Margins
Around 1900, a salesman named King Camp Gillette dreamed up the idea of disposable razor blades. Before that time, razor blades were thicker and were simply sharpened when dull—a time-consuming and imprecise (not to mention dangerous) process that no one enjoyed. Gillette’s innovation was to make the blades thin enough and inexpensive enough that they could simply be thrown away when they dulled. At first, he couldn’t sell the blades for as much money as it cost to make them, but then he had a wacky idea: he would give away the razor handles. People who got them perceived them as being valuable—but only when fitted with one of Gillette’s blades. So there was a subtle yet forceful psychological pressure to maintain that value by continually buying the blades. After a few months of blade sales, the cost of the handle was recovered and Gillette began to make a profit. Within a decade, Gillette’s company dominated the razor market and made its inventor extremely wealthy. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Unknown Woman of the Seine

Breathing new life into a mystery

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

Every year, thousands of tourists come to Paris to see one of the most famous faces in the world—Mona Lisa, or La Joconde as she’s known in France. With her enigmatic smile and serene beauty, the subject of Leonardo da Vinci’s painting has inspired both sincere admiration and endless speculation about her true identity (although most now agree that it is a portrait of Lisa del Giocondo, the wife of a Florentine silk merchant).

Although less well known, another image of a woman’s face once similarly fascinated and intrigued those who saw it, and gave rise to theories about its origin. Although her true identity is a mystery, the woman who inspired this image has come to be called “l’Inconnue de la Seine,” or the Unknown Woman of the Seine. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Truth About Bananas

Fingering the world’s most popular tropical fruit

When I was in college, I had a professor who was known for being a bit on the odd side. Although he was smart, friendly, and much loved by the students, he had some strange and inexplicable habits. For one thing, he had a very peculiar way of speaking, including about a dozen idiosyncratic phrases that he repeated over and over. A friend and I, when we got bored, used to sit in the back of the classroom and keep a tally of how many times he used each of these phrases. The professor always kept a pen clipped to his collar, even if he was wearing a shirt with a pocket (a practice that amused me so much I adopted it myself—and keep it up to this day). And he encouraged us, on multiple-choice exams, to write in our own answers in the margin if we didn’t like any of his.

Every now and then, this professor came to class with the sticker from a banana on his shirt. The brand varied, but the position did not: it was stuck right above the spot where his pen would be, if he had kept it in his pocket the way normal people do. We assumed it was just another one of his silly habits, but one day, a student actually asked him—during class—what was with the stickers. He replied, solemnly, “Oh. Yeah. Well, whenever I have a banana for breakfast that has a sticker on it, I put the sticker on my shirt to remind me of the suffering of the banana pickers in Latin America, who sometimes earn just 50¢ for a 12-hour day of work in grueling conditions. I wear it to show my solidarity with them, as a silent protest for better treatment.” From that day on, we saw the professor in a completely new light—and we started thinking about bananas differently too. As I was later to discover, almost nothing about bananas is as it seems. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Quantifying Despair and Depression

Keep swimming

Sometimes I make jokes about the exact extent to which some event has affected my mental state. For example, my wife will walk into my office with a plate of freshly baked cookies, and I’ll say, “Wow, I’m now 7% happier!” Of course, the reason it works as a joke is that happiness (or the lack thereof) is not only subjective, it’s multifaceted—I may be ecstatic about the cookies, yet still quite unhappy about my taxes.

Doctor, It Feels Like I’m Treading Water
All joking aside, I wondered whether there might be some way of measuring despair. We can certainly tell if it exists or not, and whether it feels severe. But surely psychiatrists have some sort of semi-objective scale of measurement, I figured. I couldn’t imagine one doctor saying to another, “My 10 a.m. is a Venti, but with some Prozac I’m sure we can get him down to a Tall.” So I began searching for references of scales used to measure despair or depression. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Equation of Time

When what you mean is not apparent

When someone asks me how I’m doing, I habitually answer, “Fine,” because that’s what social convention dictates—whether or not I really am fine. Most people probably don’t want to hear the detailed truth, and would be sorry they asked if I told them. Similarly, when people ask what I do for a living, more often than not they’re looking for a quick and easy way to categorize me, rather than a litany of the sundry and somewhat unconventional means by which I earn a living. So I tend to oblige with a short answer that requires no further discussion.

One day, however, I was at a party, and being in an uncharacteristically charitable mood, I decided to tell people what my occupation really is. One guy I spoke to—let’s call him “Bob” (for that is his name)—seemed particularly intrigued by the notion of Interesting Thing of the Day. He scribbled down the URL and promised me he’d send me some suggestions for topics to write about. A few days later, Bob sent me a link to a news article that led off with the following tantalizing claim: “Now we may know why the South lost the Civil War: Confederate time was about a half-hour slower than Yankee time.” I had heard of famous historical blunders based on confusion over differing calendars, but not over differing clocks. How cool. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Pittsburghese

America’s most underappreciated dialect

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

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

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From the archives…

Hypercorrection

Taking the rules of language too far

For all its shortcomings, I’m quite fond of the English language and have always been a bit bothered when people misuse it. That’s not to say I never misuse it myself, or that I even believe in such a thing as perfect English. But whenever I hear or read a glaring grammatical mistake—especially one of the common ones that we were all warned against in school—I shake my head and sigh. It’s not that I won’t understand you if you say, “I ain’t got none,” but it’s awkward and inelegant, like using a pair of pliers to turn a screw. Even though it may accomplish your objective, there are better tools for the job. Of all my pet peeves about English, though, the biggest one was something that until recently I didn’t know the name for: a phenomenon known as hypercorrection.

Linguistic Overcompensation
Hypercorrection is what occurs when someone deliberately tries to avoid making an error in the use of language but overcompensates and in so doing makes another error. The classic example of hypercorrection is the use of “you and I” when “you and me” would actually be correct. The rule, which we were all taught as children, is never to use the word “me” in the subject of a sentence, so something like “You and me are friends” would be incorrect. But because this rule was so thoroughly hammered on, many people came to feel uncomfortable about using a construction like “you and me” anywhere in a sentence, even when it’s absolutely appropriate, as in “The inheritance will be split between you and me.” When someone mistakenly uses “you and I” in an attempt to avoid breaking the “don’t use ‘me’ incorrectly” rule, he or she has hypercorrected, which is to say, flubbed. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Klingon Language Institute

The final frontier of linguistic scholarship

When I was a child, I’d come home from school each day and immediately flip on the TV to watch my favorite show. The original Star Trek series—by then already well into its years of syndication—had me completely hooked. My mother used to tease me that I could summarize the plot of any episode by the time the first chord of the theme music had played. I was a serious junior Trekkie. Years later, during the run of Star Trek: The Next Generation, I rekindled my interest in the show, going so far as to attend a few Star Trek conventions.

Ironically, it was the conventions themselves that started to wear down my interest in Star Trek. I was a fan, but not the sort of fan who would wear a uniform, pointy ears, or a communicator badge. Not the sort who would memorize scripts, install Star Trek sounds on my computer, or collect autographs of the stars. Just an ordinary fan. The people I saw at conventions, on the other hand—these folks, God bless ‘em, were over-the-top Trek junkies. From the way they talked, dressed, spent their money, and generally obsessed over the show, it seemed as though many of them took it way, way too seriously. I liked Star Trek, but I never confused it with reality. The fan culture actually tainted my own experience of what should have been just a very good science fiction show. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Ventless Clothes Dryers

Laundry without the hot air

Nearly two years ago, my wife and I decided to move out of our trendy loft apartment and find a quieter, friendlier, and less expensive place to live. One of the criteria on our list was laundry facilities. Here in San Francisco, this is not a trivial issue. There may be plenty of beautiful Victorian and Edwardian buildings, but it’s relatively rare to find an apartment with a washer and dryer in the unit, and even shared laundry facilities in the basement or garage are not the norm. Although many thousands of people make their way to the neighborhood laundromat each week with a basket of clothes and a roll of quarters, that’s something we hoped to avoid. Years of experience have shown us that there is a positive correlation between convenience of laundry facilities and marital bliss. So we were most drawn to homes that had their own washer and dryer.

At a certain point in our search, we came across an otherwise suitable apartment that included a small extra room with hookups for a washing machine, but no space for a dryer—nor any way to vent one. That sounded to me like a problem that ought to have a technological solution, so I began searching the Web. Sure enough, I found a class of machines that used a single chamber for both washing and drying—put clothes in dirty, push a button, wait an hour or two, and take them out clean and dry. That by itself was interesting, but what really got my attention was the fact that these devices could dry clothes without any sort of vent. I had always assumed that hot, moist, linty air has to come out of a clothes dryer one way or another—it seemed like one of those cosmic truths you just couldn’t get around. But you can get around it, and surprisingly enough, one way to do so is to use water to dry your clothes. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Silicone Baking Products

The quiet revolution

One of my favorite pieces of kitchen kit has always been a simple plastic pastry mat I received as a gift many years ago. It did an excellent job of keeping flour off the counter and was imprinted with circles showing how far dough should be rolled out for different sizes of pie and tart pans. The mat also made it easier to get pie crusts into a pan, because you could invert the pan onto the dough and then just flip the entire assembly over. Try that with a countertop! Well, a few months ago, my faithful pastry mat finally gave up the ghost, so I headed down to my favorite kitchen supply store to buy a replacement.

Kitchen stores are dangerous places for me, just like hardware stores and computer stores. Everywhere I look there’s some newfangled, high-tech gadget calling out to me, and my mind races as I consider all the new things I could create if only I had this or that new tool. I thought I would be safe in the cookie-sheet aisle, though: all I needed was a simple US$5 plastic mat. And there it was, right next to…wait, what’s this? A $25 fiberglass-reinforced, nonstick, heatproof, silicone pastry mat! Although I did not immediately grasp how this technological wonder would improve on the old-fashioned plastic mat, it was shiny and had an irresistible texture, not to mention lots of impressive-looking words on the box. Guess which one I left with. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Heat-Resistant Chocolate

Defying the laws of confectionary

I once heard a rumor that almost provoked a deep moral crisis. I have always had a profound, passionate, and unshakable devotion to chocolate. Equally strong is my contempt for mosquitoes (and I’d say that even if I hadn’t contracted malaria during a summer in Indonesia when I was in college). The rumor, which turned out to be unsubstantiated, was that mosquitoes pollinate the cacao trees from which cocoa is produced. I had been worried, because I didn’t know how I could maintain my belief that mosquitoes were pure evil if they were necessary for the creation of pure good. Luckily, I did not have to grapple with this serious philosophical issue and I could go on loving chocolate and hating mosquitoes without feeling any inconsistency.

The only real shortcoming of chocolate is that it has an unfortunate tendency to melt when you don’t want it to. Hot chocolate, hot fudge, and chocolate syrup are all fine if that’s what you’re expecting, but if you open a chocolate bar that’s been in a hot car, let’s say, and find that it has liquefied, you’re not going to get the experience you want. Then, of course, there’s the perennial problem of chocolate melting in your hands even when the ambient temperature is low enough to keep it solid. This is, so the ads would have us believe, the entire reason for the existence of M&Ms—a brilliant technological solution that doesn’t actually keep the chocolate from melting but at least keeps it from making a mess. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Powder Coating

Paint’s shocking competitor

During the three years I lived in Vancouver, Canada, I worked at an office in the back of a large building in an industrial park. Our company didn’t own the building, and as the smallest of several tenants, we didn’t merit a sign on the front. The company that occupied the largest portion of the building, and therefore had its sign in large letters facing the street, was Hudson Powder Coating. I had to explain this to visitors when giving directions, and they were always confused. “What is powder coating anyway?” they usually asked. I had no idea. All I knew was that as I drove through the parking lot, I saw a lot of miscellaneous metal objects sitting in front of the company’s loading area—things like bike racks, lamp stands, car parts, and folding chairs. In the morning, these items were unfinished, and in the evening when I drove by again, they were brightly colored. I inferred from this that “powder coating” must be something like painting, though I didn’t quite see where the powder part came in.

For reasons I cannot fathom, I never actually bothered to find out what powder coating was at any time during the three years I worked in the building with the powder coating company. When I finally managed to look it up, it turned out to be much more interesting than I had imagined. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Tabacón Hot Springs

The relaxing side of the Arenal Volcano

Volcanoes are generally considered rather scary, unsafe places. There was that whole Pompeii incident, of course, not to mention Mt. St. Helens. Any sensible person knows that you don’t want to be anywhere near a volcano when it erupts, and that volcanoes have the nasty habit of erupting at unpredictable and very inconvenient times. Nevertheless, dozens of active volcanoes around the world have become major tourist destinations. PR types minimize the danger, of course (“Over 27 months without a tourist fatality!”), and, statistically speaking, the odds do indeed favor a safe visit. But many thousands of tourists take the risk because volcanoes are so strange and interesting. Most of us know volcanoes only from stories that are set in faraway places and therefore have a mythological character; seeing an active volcano in person seems a little bit like seeing a unicorn—something that doesn’t seem like it could really exist.

In central Costa Rica, the Arenal Volcano offers the quintessential volcano tourism experience. Practically the entire economy of the nearby town of La Fortuna is based on tourism. There are hotels, lodges, restaurants, tours, hikes, and activities of every description that cater to people who make the long drive to the area for one reason: to hear the rumble and catch a glimpse of spewing smoke, ash, and lava from Arenal. But by far the most famous (and most expensive) attraction besides the volcano itself is the Tabacón Hot Springs Resort & Spa. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Revenge of the Analog Clock

Time for a pie chart

Author Douglas Adams famously made fun of earthlings for being “so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.” Shortly before he died, Adams gave a talk at the University of California, Santa Barbara (not far from his home), at the end of which there was a brief question-and-answer session. A woman stood up and asked Adams the question that had been bothering her for decades: what did he have against digital watches? The crowd probably expected him to toss off a witty one-liner in response. Instead, he gave a very thoughtful answer that, in true Douglas Adams fashion, made ordinary human behavior seem self-evidently absurd.

After admitting that his comment had originally been written in the days when digital watches were themselves fairly primitive (and, ironically, required two hands to operate), Adams couched his complaint—appropriately—using an analogy. In the early days of personal computers, he said, people got very excited that their spreadsheet programs could finally create pie charts. This was considered a revolutionary advance, because as everyone knows, a pie chart visually represents a part-whole relationship in a way that is immediately obvious—a way that, to be more specific, mere columns of numbers did not. Well, the hands of an analog timepiece form wedges that look very much like a pie chart, and like a pie chart, they represent a sort of part-whole relationship in a way that requires a bare minimum of mental effort to comprehend. Not so digital timepieces, which for all their precision say nothing about the relationship of one time of day to another. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Handshake

Coming to grips with gestures of greeting

The other day I was at a restaurant with some friends, and one member of our party arrived a bit late. Before sitting down, he started heading toward the corner of the room, and when someone asked where he was going, he held up his hands and said, “Demunification.” Although I had never heard that word before, I understood immediately what he was saying: he was heading to the lavatory to wash his hands in order to “de-MUNI-fy” them—MUNI being short for San Francisco Municipal Railway, the transit authority that runs the city’s buses and streetcars. When you’re riding a bus or streetcar that’s so crowded you have to stand, you end up holding onto the handrails, which perpetually feel (and probably are) grimy from being handled by untold thousands of people before you. Almost everyone I know who rides MUNI habitually washes their hands as soon afterward as possible, which is probably an excellent idea.

From time to time I’m in some sort of social situation where a handshake is expected, but my hands (whether MUNIfied or not) are not necessarily clean. This always makes me feel awkward—it’s one thing to decline a handshake when my hands are covered with motor oil or pastry flour, but in the absence of visible contaminants, North Americans typically consider it an insult not to accept a handshake. Meanwhile, personal observation informs me that an unknown but excessively high percentage of men routinely leave public restrooms without washing their hands. Thus, shaking hands strikes me as a relatively unsanitary gesture of greeting. Not that I’m hypersensitive about germs, but this made me wonder: considering the wide range of alternatives, how did the handshake come to be the standard greeting in this society? And hygiene aside, how can we make sense of all its supposedly deep and symbolic meanings? [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Giving Away the Razor, Selling the Blades

The curious strategy of loss-leader marketing

One day I opened up my mailbox, and there inside was a box from Gillette containing a brand-new Mach3 razor. It turned out that the box was addressed to my neighbor, which is just as well: the idea of shaving with a triple-blade razor seemed a bit—excuse me—over the edge. That was just a few years ago, and since then, the Mach3 has been superseded by models with four and five blades, with or without a vibrating feature—the mind boggles. But the twin-blade Gillette SensorExcel razor I used for many years also came in the mail for free, and also, coincidentally, wasn’t addressed to me—I got it from a friend who didn’t want it. Still, exactly as Gillette hoped, I spent many, many dollars over the years on their obscenely overpriced blades before breaking down and buying an electric razor. Like countless other people, I was sucked in by the “give-away-the-razor-sell-the-blades” concept. Old-fashioned and counterintuitive, this marketing gimmick is still going strong.

Razor-Thin Profit Margins
Around 1900, a salesman named King Camp Gillette dreamed up the idea of disposable razor blades. Before that time, razor blades were thicker and were simply sharpened when dull—a time-consuming and imprecise (not to mention dangerous) process that no one enjoyed. Gillette’s innovation was to make the blades thin enough and inexpensive enough that they could simply be thrown away when they dulled. At first, he couldn’t sell the blades for as much money as it cost to make them, but then he had a wacky idea: he would give away the razor handles. People who got them perceived them as being valuable—but only when fitted with one of Gillette’s blades. So there was a subtle yet forceful psychological pressure to maintain that value by continually buying the blades. After a few months of blade sales, the cost of the handle was recovered and Gillette began to make a profit. Within a decade, Gillette’s company dominated the razor market and made its inventor extremely wealthy. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Unknown Woman of the Seine

Breathing new life into a mystery

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

Every year, thousands of tourists come to Paris to see one of the most famous faces in the world—Mona Lisa, or La Joconde as she’s known in France. With her enigmatic smile and serene beauty, the subject of Leonardo da Vinci’s painting has inspired both sincere admiration and endless speculation about her true identity (although most now agree that it is a portrait of Lisa del Giocondo, the wife of a Florentine silk merchant).

Although less well known, another image of a woman’s face once similarly fascinated and intrigued those who saw it, and gave rise to theories about its origin. Although her true identity is a mystery, the woman who inspired this image has come to be called “l’Inconnue de la Seine,” or the Unknown Woman of the Seine. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Truth About Bananas

Fingering the world’s most popular tropical fruit

When I was in college, I had a professor who was known for being a bit on the odd side. Although he was smart, friendly, and much loved by the students, he had some strange and inexplicable habits. For one thing, he had a very peculiar way of speaking, including about a dozen idiosyncratic phrases that he repeated over and over. A friend and I, when we got bored, used to sit in the back of the classroom and keep a tally of how many times he used each of these phrases. The professor always kept a pen clipped to his collar, even if he was wearing a shirt with a pocket (a practice that amused me so much I adopted it myself—and keep it up to this day). And he encouraged us, on multiple-choice exams, to write in our own answers in the margin if we didn’t like any of his.

Every now and then, this professor came to class with the sticker from a banana on his shirt. The brand varied, but the position did not: it was stuck right above the spot where his pen would be, if he had kept it in his pocket the way normal people do. We assumed it was just another one of his silly habits, but one day, a student actually asked him—during class—what was with the stickers. He replied, solemnly, “Oh. Yeah. Well, whenever I have a banana for breakfast that has a sticker on it, I put the sticker on my shirt to remind me of the suffering of the banana pickers in Latin America, who sometimes earn just 50¢ for a 12-hour day of work in grueling conditions. I wear it to show my solidarity with them, as a silent protest for better treatment.” From that day on, we saw the professor in a completely new light—and we started thinking about bananas differently too. As I was later to discover, almost nothing about bananas is as it seems. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Quantifying Despair and Depression

Keep swimming

Sometimes I make jokes about the exact extent to which some event has affected my mental state. For example, my wife will walk into my office with a plate of freshly baked cookies, and I’ll say, “Wow, I’m now 7% happier!” Of course, the reason it works as a joke is that happiness (or the lack thereof) is not only subjective, it’s multifaceted—I may be ecstatic about the cookies, yet still quite unhappy about my taxes.

Doctor, It Feels Like I’m Treading Water
All joking aside, I wondered whether there might be some way of measuring despair. We can certainly tell if it exists or not, and whether it feels severe. But surely psychiatrists have some sort of semi-objective scale of measurement, I figured. I couldn’t imagine one doctor saying to another, “My 10 a.m. is a Venti, but with some Prozac I’m sure we can get him down to a Tall.” So I began searching for references of scales used to measure despair or depression. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Equation of Time

When what you mean is not apparent

When someone asks me how I’m doing, I habitually answer, “Fine,” because that’s what social convention dictates—whether or not I really am fine. Most people probably don’t want to hear the detailed truth, and would be sorry they asked if I told them. Similarly, when people ask what I do for a living, more often than not they’re looking for a quick and easy way to categorize me, rather than a litany of the sundry and somewhat unconventional means by which I earn a living. So I tend to oblige with a short answer that requires no further discussion.

One day, however, I was at a party, and being in an uncharacteristically charitable mood, I decided to tell people what my occupation really is. One guy I spoke to—let’s call him “Bob” (for that is his name)—seemed particularly intrigued by the notion of Interesting Thing of the Day. He scribbled down the URL and promised me he’d send me some suggestions for topics to write about. A few days later, Bob sent me a link to a news article that led off with the following tantalizing claim: “Now we may know why the South lost the Civil War: Confederate time was about a half-hour slower than Yankee time.” I had heard of famous historical blunders based on confusion over differing calendars, but not over differing clocks. How cool. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Pittsburghese

America’s most underappreciated dialect

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

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

•••••

From the archives…

Hypercorrection

Taking the rules of language too far

For all its shortcomings, I’m quite fond of the English language and have always been a bit bothered when people misuse it. That’s not to say I never misuse it myself, or that I even believe in such a thing as perfect English. But whenever I hear or read a glaring grammatical mistake—especially one of the common ones that we were all warned against in school—I shake my head and sigh. It’s not that I won’t understand you if you say, “I ain’t got none,” but it’s awkward and inelegant, like using a pair of pliers to turn a screw. Even though it may accomplish your objective, there are better tools for the job. Of all my pet peeves about English, though, the biggest one was something that until recently I didn’t know the name for: a phenomenon known as hypercorrection.

Linguistic Overcompensation
Hypercorrection is what occurs when someone deliberately tries to avoid making an error in the use of language but overcompensates and in so doing makes another error. The classic example of hypercorrection is the use of “you and I” when “you and me” would actually be correct. The rule, which we were all taught as children, is never to use the word “me” in the subject of a sentence, so something like “You and me are friends” would be incorrect. But because this rule was so thoroughly hammered on, many people came to feel uncomfortable about using a construction like “you and me” anywhere in a sentence, even when it’s absolutely appropriate, as in “The inheritance will be split between you and me.” When someone mistakenly uses “you and I” in an attempt to avoid breaking the “don’t use ‘me’ incorrectly” rule, he or she has hypercorrected, which is to say, flubbed. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Klingon Language Institute

The final frontier of linguistic scholarship

When I was a child, I’d come home from school each day and immediately flip on the TV to watch my favorite show. The original Star Trek series—by then already well into its years of syndication—had me completely hooked. My mother used to tease me that I could summarize the plot of any episode by the time the first chord of the theme music had played. I was a serious junior Trekkie. Years later, during the run of Star Trek: The Next Generation, I rekindled my interest in the show, going so far as to attend a few Star Trek conventions.

Ironically, it was the conventions themselves that started to wear down my interest in Star Trek. I was a fan, but not the sort of fan who would wear a uniform, pointy ears, or a communicator badge. Not the sort who would memorize scripts, install Star Trek sounds on my computer, or collect autographs of the stars. Just an ordinary fan. The people I saw at conventions, on the other hand—these folks, God bless ‘em, were over-the-top Trek junkies. From the way they talked, dressed, spent their money, and generally obsessed over the show, it seemed as though many of them took it way, way too seriously. I liked Star Trek, but I never confused it with reality. The fan culture actually tainted my own experience of what should have been just a very good science fiction show. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Ventless Clothes Dryers

Laundry without the hot air

Nearly two years ago, my wife and I decided to move out of our trendy loft apartment and find a quieter, friendlier, and less expensive place to live. One of the criteria on our list was laundry facilities. Here in San Francisco, this is not a trivial issue. There may be plenty of beautiful Victorian and Edwardian buildings, but it’s relatively rare to find an apartment with a washer and dryer in the unit, and even shared laundry facilities in the basement or garage are not the norm. Although many thousands of people make their way to the neighborhood laundromat each week with a basket of clothes and a roll of quarters, that’s something we hoped to avoid. Years of experience have shown us that there is a positive correlation between convenience of laundry facilities and marital bliss. So we were most drawn to homes that had their own washer and dryer.

At a certain point in our search, we came across an otherwise suitable apartment that included a small extra room with hookups for a washing machine, but no space for a dryer—nor any way to vent one. That sounded to me like a problem that ought to have a technological solution, so I began searching the Web. Sure enough, I found a class of machines that used a single chamber for both washing and drying—put clothes in dirty, push a button, wait an hour or two, and take them out clean and dry. That by itself was interesting, but what really got my attention was the fact that these devices could dry clothes without any sort of vent. I had always assumed that hot, moist, linty air has to come out of a clothes dryer one way or another—it seemed like one of those cosmic truths you just couldn’t get around. But you can get around it, and surprisingly enough, one way to do so is to use water to dry your clothes. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Silicone Baking Products

The quiet revolution

One of my favorite pieces of kitchen kit has always been a simple plastic pastry mat I received as a gift many years ago. It did an excellent job of keeping flour off the counter and was imprinted with circles showing how far dough should be rolled out for different sizes of pie and tart pans. The mat also made it easier to get pie crusts into a pan, because you could invert the pan onto the dough and then just flip the entire assembly over. Try that with a countertop! Well, a few months ago, my faithful pastry mat finally gave up the ghost, so I headed down to my favorite kitchen supply store to buy a replacement.

Kitchen stores are dangerous places for me, just like hardware stores and computer stores. Everywhere I look there’s some newfangled, high-tech gadget calling out to me, and my mind races as I consider all the new things I could create if only I had this or that new tool. I thought I would be safe in the cookie-sheet aisle, though: all I needed was a simple US$5 plastic mat. And there it was, right next to…wait, what’s this? A $25 fiberglass-reinforced, nonstick, heatproof, silicone pastry mat! Although I did not immediately grasp how this technological wonder would improve on the old-fashioned plastic mat, it was shiny and had an irresistible texture, not to mention lots of impressive-looking words on the box. Guess which one I left with. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Heat-Resistant Chocolate

Defying the laws of confectionary

I once heard a rumor that almost provoked a deep moral crisis. I have always had a profound, passionate, and unshakable devotion to chocolate. Equally strong is my contempt for mosquitoes (and I’d say that even if I hadn’t contracted malaria during a summer in Indonesia when I was in college). The rumor, which turned out to be unsubstantiated, was that mosquitoes pollinate the cacao trees from which cocoa is produced. I had been worried, because I didn’t know how I could maintain my belief that mosquitoes were pure evil if they were necessary for the creation of pure good. Luckily, I did not have to grapple with this serious philosophical issue and I could go on loving chocolate and hating mosquitoes without feeling any inconsistency.

The only real shortcoming of chocolate is that it has an unfortunate tendency to melt when you don’t want it to. Hot chocolate, hot fudge, and chocolate syrup are all fine if that’s what you’re expecting, but if you open a chocolate bar that’s been in a hot car, let’s say, and find that it has liquefied, you’re not going to get the experience you want. Then, of course, there’s the perennial problem of chocolate melting in your hands even when the ambient temperature is low enough to keep it solid. This is, so the ads would have us believe, the entire reason for the existence of M&Ms—a brilliant technological solution that doesn’t actually keep the chocolate from melting but at least keeps it from making a mess. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Powder Coating

Paint’s shocking competitor

During the three years I lived in Vancouver, Canada, I worked at an office in the back of a large building in an industrial park. Our company didn’t own the building, and as the smallest of several tenants, we didn’t merit a sign on the front. The company that occupied the largest portion of the building, and therefore had its sign in large letters facing the street, was Hudson Powder Coating. I had to explain this to visitors when giving directions, and they were always confused. “What is powder coating anyway?” they usually asked. I had no idea. All I knew was that as I drove through the parking lot, I saw a lot of miscellaneous metal objects sitting in front of the company’s loading area—things like bike racks, lamp stands, car parts, and folding chairs. In the morning, these items were unfinished, and in the evening when I drove by again, they were brightly colored. I inferred from this that “powder coating” must be something like painting, though I didn’t quite see where the powder part came in.

For reasons I cannot fathom, I never actually bothered to find out what powder coating was at any time during the three years I worked in the building with the powder coating company. When I finally managed to look it up, it turned out to be much more interesting than I had imagined. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Tabacón Hot Springs

The relaxing side of the Arenal Volcano

Volcanoes are generally considered rather scary, unsafe places. There was that whole Pompeii incident, of course, not to mention Mt. St. Helens. Any sensible person knows that you don’t want to be anywhere near a volcano when it erupts, and that volcanoes have the nasty habit of erupting at unpredictable and very inconvenient times. Nevertheless, dozens of active volcanoes around the world have become major tourist destinations. PR types minimize the danger, of course (“Over 27 months without a tourist fatality!”), and, statistically speaking, the odds do indeed favor a safe visit. But many thousands of tourists take the risk because volcanoes are so strange and interesting. Most of us know volcanoes only from stories that are set in faraway places and therefore have a mythological character; seeing an active volcano in person seems a little bit like seeing a unicorn—something that doesn’t seem like it could really exist.

In central Costa Rica, the Arenal Volcano offers the quintessential volcano tourism experience. Practically the entire economy of the nearby town of La Fortuna is based on tourism. There are hotels, lodges, restaurants, tours, hikes, and activities of every description that cater to people who make the long drive to the area for one reason: to hear the rumble and catch a glimpse of spewing smoke, ash, and lava from Arenal. But by far the most famous (and most expensive) attraction besides the volcano itself is the Tabacón Hot Springs Resort & Spa. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Revenge of the Analog Clock

Time for a pie chart

Author Douglas Adams famously made fun of earthlings for being “so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.” Shortly before he died, Adams gave a talk at the University of California, Santa Barbara (not far from his home), at the end of which there was a brief question-and-answer session. A woman stood up and asked Adams the question that had been bothering her for decades: what did he have against digital watches? The crowd probably expected him to toss off a witty one-liner in response. Instead, he gave a very thoughtful answer that, in true Douglas Adams fashion, made ordinary human behavior seem self-evidently absurd.

After admitting that his comment had originally been written in the days when digital watches were themselves fairly primitive (and, ironically, required two hands to operate), Adams couched his complaint—appropriately—using an analogy. In the early days of personal computers, he said, people got very excited that their spreadsheet programs could finally create pie charts. This was considered a revolutionary advance, because as everyone knows, a pie chart visually represents a part-whole relationship in a way that is immediately obvious—a way that, to be more specific, mere columns of numbers did not. Well, the hands of an analog timepiece form wedges that look very much like a pie chart, and like a pie chart, they represent a sort of part-whole relationship in a way that requires a bare minimum of mental effort to comprehend. Not so digital timepieces, which for all their precision say nothing about the relationship of one time of day to another. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Handshake

Coming to grips with gestures of greeting

The other day I was at a restaurant with some friends, and one member of our party arrived a bit late. Before sitting down, he started heading toward the corner of the room, and when someone asked where he was going, he held up his hands and said, “Demunification.” Although I had never heard that word before, I understood immediately what he was saying: he was heading to the lavatory to wash his hands in order to “de-MUNI-fy” them—MUNI being short for San Francisco Municipal Railway, the transit authority that runs the city’s buses and streetcars. When you’re riding a bus or streetcar that’s so crowded you have to stand, you end up holding onto the handrails, which perpetually feel (and probably are) grimy from being handled by untold thousands of people before you. Almost everyone I know who rides MUNI habitually washes their hands as soon afterward as possible, which is probably an excellent idea.

From time to time I’m in some sort of social situation where a handshake is expected, but my hands (whether MUNIfied or not) are not necessarily clean. This always makes me feel awkward—it’s one thing to decline a handshake when my hands are covered with motor oil or pastry flour, but in the absence of visible contaminants, North Americans typically consider it an insult not to accept a handshake. Meanwhile, personal observation informs me that an unknown but excessively high percentage of men routinely leave public restrooms without washing their hands. Thus, shaking hands strikes me as a relatively unsanitary gesture of greeting. Not that I’m hypersensitive about germs, but this made me wonder: considering the wide range of alternatives, how did the handshake come to be the standard greeting in this society? And hygiene aside, how can we make sense of all its supposedly deep and symbolic meanings? [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Giving Away the Razor, Selling the Blades

The curious strategy of loss-leader marketing

One day I opened up my mailbox, and there inside was a box from Gillette containing a brand-new Mach3 razor. It turned out that the box was addressed to my neighbor, which is just as well: the idea of shaving with a triple-blade razor seemed a bit—excuse me—over the edge. That was just a few years ago, and since then, the Mach3 has been superseded by models with four and five blades, with or without a vibrating feature—the mind boggles. But the twin-blade Gillette SensorExcel razor I used for many years also came in the mail for free, and also, coincidentally, wasn’t addressed to me—I got it from a friend who didn’t want it. Still, exactly as Gillette hoped, I spent many, many dollars over the years on their obscenely overpriced blades before breaking down and buying an electric razor. Like countless other people, I was sucked in by the “give-away-the-razor-sell-the-blades” concept. Old-fashioned and counterintuitive, this marketing gimmick is still going strong.

Razor-Thin Profit Margins
Around 1900, a salesman named King Camp Gillette dreamed up the idea of disposable razor blades. Before that time, razor blades were thicker and were simply sharpened when dull—a time-consuming and imprecise (not to mention dangerous) process that no one enjoyed. Gillette’s innovation was to make the blades thin enough and inexpensive enough that they could simply be thrown away when they dulled. At first, he couldn’t sell the blades for as much money as it cost to make them, but then he had a wacky idea: he would give away the razor handles. People who got them perceived them as being valuable—but only when fitted with one of Gillette’s blades. So there was a subtle yet forceful psychological pressure to maintain that value by continually buying the blades. After a few months of blade sales, the cost of the handle was recovered and Gillette began to make a profit. Within a decade, Gillette’s company dominated the razor market and made its inventor extremely wealthy. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Truth About Bananas

Fingering the world’s most popular tropical fruit

When I was in college, I had a professor who was known for being a bit on the odd side. Although he was smart, friendly, and much loved by the students, he had some strange and inexplicable habits. For one thing, he had a very peculiar way of speaking, including about a dozen idiosyncratic phrases that he repeated over and over. A friend and I, when we got bored, used to sit in the back of the classroom and keep a tally of how many times he used each of these phrases. The professor always kept a pen clipped to his collar, even if he was wearing a shirt with a pocket (a practice that amused me so much I adopted it myself—and keep it up to this day). And he encouraged us, on multiple-choice exams, to write in our own answers in the margin if we didn’t like any of his.

Every now and then, this professor came to class with the sticker from a banana on his shirt. The brand varied, but the position did not: it was stuck right above the spot where his pen would be, if he had kept it in his pocket the way normal people do. We assumed it was just another one of his silly habits, but one day, a student actually asked him—during class—what was with the stickers. He replied, solemnly, “Oh. Yeah. Well, whenever I have a banana for breakfast that has a sticker on it, I put the sticker on my shirt to remind me of the suffering of the banana pickers in Latin America, who sometimes earn just 50¢ for a 12-hour day of work in grueling conditions. I wear it to show my solidarity with them, as a silent protest for better treatment.” From that day on, we saw the professor in a completely new light—and we started thinking about bananas differently too. As I was later to discover, almost nothing about bananas is as it seems. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Quantifying Despair and Depression

Keep swimming

Sometimes I make jokes about the exact extent to which some event has affected my mental state. For example, my wife will walk into my office with a plate of freshly baked cookies, and I’ll say, “Wow, I’m now 7% happier!” Of course, the reason it works as a joke is that happiness (or the lack thereof) is not only subjective, it’s multifaceted—I may be ecstatic about the cookies, yet still quite unhappy about my taxes.

Doctor, It Feels Like I’m Treading Water
All joking aside, I wondered whether there might be some way of measuring despair. We can certainly tell if it exists or not, and whether it feels severe. But surely psychiatrists have some sort of semi-objective scale of measurement, I figured. I couldn’t imagine one doctor saying to another, “My 10 a.m. is a Venti, but with some Prozac I’m sure we can get him down to a Tall.” So I began searching for references of scales used to measure despair or depression. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Equation of Time

When what you mean is not apparent

When someone asks me how I’m doing, I habitually answer, “Fine,” because that’s what social convention dictates—whether or not I really am fine. Most people probably don’t want to hear the detailed truth, and would be sorry they asked if I told them. Similarly, when people ask what I do for a living, more often than not they’re looking for a quick and easy way to categorize me, rather than a litany of the sundry and somewhat unconventional means by which I earn a living. So I tend to oblige with a short answer that requires no further discussion.

One day, however, I was at a party, and being in an uncharacteristically charitable mood, I decided to tell people what my occupation really is. One guy I spoke to—let’s call him “Bob” (for that is his name)—seemed particularly intrigued by the notion of Interesting Thing of the Day. He scribbled down the URL and promised me he’d send me some suggestions for topics to write about. A few days later, Bob sent me a link to a news article that led off with the following tantalizing claim: “Now we may know why the South lost the Civil War: Confederate time was about a half-hour slower than Yankee time.” I had heard of famous historical blunders based on confusion over differing calendars, but not over differing clocks. How cool. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Unknown Woman of the Seine

Breathing new life into a mystery

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

Every year, thousands of tourists come to Paris to see one of the most famous faces in the world—Mona Lisa, or La Joconde as she’s known in France. With her enigmatic smile and serene beauty, the subject of Leonardo da Vinci’s painting has inspired both sincere admiration and endless speculation about her true identity (although most now agree that it is a portrait of Lisa del Giocondo, the wife of a Florentine silk merchant).

Although less well known, another image of a woman’s face once similarly fascinated and intrigued those who saw it, and gave rise to theories about its origin. Although her true identity is a mystery, the woman who inspired this image has come to be called “l’Inconnue de la Seine,” or the Unknown Woman of the Seine. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Pittsburghese

America’s most underappreciated dialect

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

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

•••••

From the archives…

Hypercorrection

Taking the rules of language too far

For all its shortcomings, I’m quite fond of the English language and have always been a bit bothered when people misuse it. That’s not to say I never misuse it myself, or that I even believe in such a thing as perfect English. But whenever I hear or read a glaring grammatical mistake—especially one of the common ones that we were all warned against in school—I shake my head and sigh. It’s not that I won’t understand you if you say, “I ain’t got none,” but it’s awkward and inelegant, like using a pair of pliers to turn a screw. Even though it may accomplish your objective, there are better tools for the job. Of all my pet peeves about English, though, the biggest one was something that until recently I didn’t know the name for: a phenomenon known as hypercorrection.

Linguistic Overcompensation
Hypercorrection is what occurs when someone deliberately tries to avoid making an error in the use of language but overcompensates and in so doing makes another error. The classic example of hypercorrection is the use of “you and I” when “you and me” would actually be correct. The rule, which we were all taught as children, is never to use the word “me” in the subject of a sentence, so something like “You and me are friends” would be incorrect. But because this rule was so thoroughly hammered on, many people came to feel uncomfortable about using a construction like “you and me” anywhere in a sentence, even when it’s absolutely appropriate, as in “The inheritance will be split between you and me.” When someone mistakenly uses “you and I” in an attempt to avoid breaking the “don’t use ‘me’ incorrectly” rule, he or she has hypercorrected, which is to say, flubbed. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Klingon Language Institute

The final frontier of linguistic scholarship

When I was a child, I’d come home from school each day and immediately flip on the TV to watch my favorite show. The original Star Trek series—by then already well into its years of syndication—had me completely hooked. My mother used to tease me that I could summarize the plot of any episode by the time the first chord of the theme music had played. I was a serious junior Trekkie. Years later, during the run of Star Trek: The Next Generation, I rekindled my interest in the show, going so far as to attend a few Star Trek conventions.

Ironically, it was the conventions themselves that started to wear down my interest in Star Trek. I was a fan, but not the sort of fan who would wear a uniform, pointy ears, or a communicator badge. Not the sort who would memorize scripts, install Star Trek sounds on my computer, or collect autographs of the stars. Just an ordinary fan. The people I saw at conventions, on the other hand—these folks, God bless ‘em, were over-the-top Trek junkies. From the way they talked, dressed, spent their money, and generally obsessed over the show, it seemed as though many of them took it way, way too seriously. I liked Star Trek, but I never confused it with reality. The fan culture actually tainted my own experience of what should have been just a very good science fiction show. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Ventless Clothes Dryers

Laundry without the hot air

Nearly two years ago, my wife and I decided to move out of our trendy loft apartment and find a quieter, friendlier, and less expensive place to live. One of the criteria on our list was laundry facilities. Here in San Francisco, this is not a trivial issue. There may be plenty of beautiful Victorian and Edwardian buildings, but it’s relatively rare to find an apartment with a washer and dryer in the unit, and even shared laundry facilities in the basement or garage are not the norm. Although many thousands of people make their way to the neighborhood laundromat each week with a basket of clothes and a roll of quarters, that’s something we hoped to avoid. Years of experience have shown us that there is a positive correlation between convenience of laundry facilities and marital bliss. So we were most drawn to homes that had their own washer and dryer.

At a certain point in our search, we came across an otherwise suitable apartment that included a small extra room with hookups for a washing machine, but no space for a dryer—nor any way to vent one. That sounded to me like a problem that ought to have a technological solution, so I began searching the Web. Sure enough, I found a class of machines that used a single chamber for both washing and drying—put clothes in dirty, push a button, wait an hour or two, and take them out clean and dry. That by itself was interesting, but what really got my attention was the fact that these devices could dry clothes without any sort of vent. I had always assumed that hot, moist, linty air has to come out of a clothes dryer one way or another—it seemed like one of those cosmic truths you just couldn’t get around. But you can get around it, and surprisingly enough, one way to do so is to use water to dry your clothes. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Silicone Baking Products

The quiet revolution

One of my favorite pieces of kitchen kit has always been a simple plastic pastry mat I received as a gift many years ago. It did an excellent job of keeping flour off the counter and was imprinted with circles showing how far dough should be rolled out for different sizes of pie and tart pans. The mat also made it easier to get pie crusts into a pan, because you could invert the pan onto the dough and then just flip the entire assembly over. Try that with a countertop! Well, a few months ago, my faithful pastry mat finally gave up the ghost, so I headed down to my favorite kitchen supply store to buy a replacement.

Kitchen stores are dangerous places for me, just like hardware stores and computer stores. Everywhere I look there’s some newfangled, high-tech gadget calling out to me, and my mind races as I consider all the new things I could create if only I had this or that new tool. I thought I would be safe in the cookie-sheet aisle, though: all I needed was a simple US$5 plastic mat. And there it was, right next to…wait, what’s this? A $25 fiberglass-reinforced, nonstick, heatproof, silicone pastry mat! Although I did not immediately grasp how this technological wonder would improve on the old-fashioned plastic mat, it was shiny and had an irresistible texture, not to mention lots of impressive-looking words on the box. Guess which one I left with. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Heat-Resistant Chocolate

Defying the laws of confectionary

I once heard a rumor that almost provoked a deep moral crisis. I have always had a profound, passionate, and unshakable devotion to chocolate. Equally strong is my contempt for mosquitoes (and I’d say that even if I hadn’t contracted malaria during a summer in Indonesia when I was in college). The rumor, which turned out to be unsubstantiated, was that mosquitoes pollinate the cacao trees from which cocoa is produced. I had been worried, because I didn’t know how I could maintain my belief that mosquitoes were pure evil if they were necessary for the creation of pure good. Luckily, I did not have to grapple with this serious philosophical issue and I could go on loving chocolate and hating mosquitoes without feeling any inconsistency.

The only real shortcoming of chocolate is that it has an unfortunate tendency to melt when you don’t want it to. Hot chocolate, hot fudge, and chocolate syrup are all fine if that’s what you’re expecting, but if you open a chocolate bar that’s been in a hot car, let’s say, and find that it has liquefied, you’re not going to get the experience you want. Then, of course, there’s the perennial problem of chocolate melting in your hands even when the ambient temperature is low enough to keep it solid. This is, so the ads would have us believe, the entire reason for the existence of M&Ms—a brilliant technological solution that doesn’t actually keep the chocolate from melting but at least keeps it from making a mess. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Powder Coating

Paint’s shocking competitor

During the three years I lived in Vancouver, Canada, I worked at an office in the back of a large building in an industrial park. Our company didn’t own the building, and as the smallest of several tenants, we didn’t merit a sign on the front. The company that occupied the largest portion of the building, and therefore had its sign in large letters facing the street, was Hudson Powder Coating. I had to explain this to visitors when giving directions, and they were always confused. “What is powder coating anyway?” they usually asked. I had no idea. All I knew was that as I drove through the parking lot, I saw a lot of miscellaneous metal objects sitting in front of the company’s loading area—things like bike racks, lamp stands, car parts, and folding chairs. In the morning, these items were unfinished, and in the evening when I drove by again, they were brightly colored. I inferred from this that “powder coating” must be something like painting, though I didn’t quite see where the powder part came in.

For reasons I cannot fathom, I never actually bothered to find out what powder coating was at any time during the three years I worked in the building with the powder coating company. When I finally managed to look it up, it turned out to be much more interesting than I had imagined. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Tabacón Hot Springs

The relaxing side of the Arenal Volcano

Volcanoes are generally considered rather scary, unsafe places. There was that whole Pompeii incident, of course, not to mention Mt. St. Helens. Any sensible person knows that you don’t want to be anywhere near a volcano when it erupts, and that volcanoes have the nasty habit of erupting at unpredictable and very inconvenient times. Nevertheless, dozens of active volcanoes around the world have become major tourist destinations. PR types minimize the danger, of course (“Over 27 months without a tourist fatality!”), and, statistically speaking, the odds do indeed favor a safe visit. But many thousands of tourists take the risk because volcanoes are so strange and interesting. Most of us know volcanoes only from stories that are set in faraway places and therefore have a mythological character; seeing an active volcano in person seems a little bit like seeing a unicorn—something that doesn’t seem like it could really exist.

In central Costa Rica, the Arenal Volcano offers the quintessential volcano tourism experience. Practically the entire economy of the nearby town of La Fortuna is based on tourism. There are hotels, lodges, restaurants, tours, hikes, and activities of every description that cater to people who make the long drive to the area for one reason: to hear the rumble and catch a glimpse of spewing smoke, ash, and lava from Arenal. But by far the most famous (and most expensive) attraction besides the volcano itself is the Tabacón Hot Springs Resort & Spa. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Revenge of the Analog Clock

Time for a pie chart

Author Douglas Adams famously made fun of earthlings for being “so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.” Shortly before he died, Adams gave a talk at the University of California, Santa Barbara (not far from his home), at the end of which there was a brief question-and-answer session. A woman stood up and asked Adams the question that had been bothering her for decades: what did he have against digital watches? The crowd probably expected him to toss off a witty one-liner in response. Instead, he gave a very thoughtful answer that, in true Douglas Adams fashion, made ordinary human behavior seem self-evidently absurd.

After admitting that his comment had originally been written in the days when digital watches were themselves fairly primitive (and, ironically, required two hands to operate), Adams couched his complaint—appropriately—using an analogy. In the early days of personal computers, he said, people got very excited that their spreadsheet programs could finally create pie charts. This was considered a revolutionary advance, because as everyone knows, a pie chart visually represents a part-whole relationship in a way that is immediately obvious—a way that, to be more specific, mere columns of numbers did not. Well, the hands of an analog timepiece form wedges that look very much like a pie chart, and like a pie chart, they represent a sort of part-whole relationship in a way that requires a bare minimum of mental effort to comprehend. Not so digital timepieces, which for all their precision say nothing about the relationship of one time of day to another. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Handshake

Coming to grips with gestures of greeting

The other day I was at a restaurant with some friends, and one member of our party arrived a bit late. Before sitting down, he started heading toward the corner of the room, and when someone asked where he was going, he held up his hands and said, “Demunification.” Although I had never heard that word before, I understood immediately what he was saying: he was heading to the lavatory to wash his hands in order to “de-MUNI-fy” them—MUNI being short for San Francisco Municipal Railway, the transit authority that runs the city’s buses and streetcars. When you’re riding a bus or streetcar that’s so crowded you have to stand, you end up holding onto the handrails, which perpetually feel (and probably are) grimy from being handled by untold thousands of people before you. Almost everyone I know who rides MUNI habitually washes their hands as soon afterward as possible, which is probably an excellent idea.

From time to time I’m in some sort of social situation where a handshake is expected, but my hands (whether MUNIfied or not) are not necessarily clean. This always makes me feel awkward—it’s one thing to decline a handshake when my hands are covered with motor oil or pastry flour, but in the absence of visible contaminants, North Americans typically consider it an insult not to accept a handshake. Meanwhile, personal observation informs me that an unknown but excessively high percentage of men routinely leave public restrooms without washing their hands. Thus, shaking hands strikes me as a relatively unsanitary gesture of greeting. Not that I’m hypersensitive about germs, but this made me wonder: considering the wide range of alternatives, how did the handshake come to be the standard greeting in this society? And hygiene aside, how can we make sense of all its supposedly deep and symbolic meanings? [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Giving Away the Razor, Selling the Blades

The curious strategy of loss-leader marketing

One day I opened up my mailbox, and there inside was a box from Gillette containing a brand-new Mach3 razor. It turned out that the box was addressed to my neighbor, which is just as well: the idea of shaving with a triple-blade razor seemed a bit—excuse me—over the edge. That was just a few years ago, and since then, the Mach3 has been superseded by models with four and five blades, with or without a vibrating feature—the mind boggles. But the twin-blade Gillette SensorExcel razor I used for many years also came in the mail for free, and also, coincidentally, wasn’t addressed to me—I got it from a friend who didn’t want it. Still, exactly as Gillette hoped, I spent many, many dollars over the years on their obscenely overpriced blades before breaking down and buying an electric razor. Like countless other people, I was sucked in by the “give-away-the-razor-sell-the-blades” concept. Old-fashioned and counterintuitive, this marketing gimmick is still going strong.

Razor-Thin Profit Margins
Around 1900, a salesman named King Camp Gillette dreamed up the idea of disposable razor blades. Before that time, razor blades were thicker and were simply sharpened when dull—a time-consuming and imprecise (not to mention dangerous) process that no one enjoyed. Gillette’s innovation was to make the blades thin enough and inexpensive enough that they could simply be thrown away when they dulled. At first, he couldn’t sell the blades for as much money as it cost to make them, but then he had a wacky idea: he would give away the razor handles. People who got them perceived them as being valuable—but only when fitted with one of Gillette’s blades. So there was a subtle yet forceful psychological pressure to maintain that value by continually buying the blades. After a few months of blade sales, the cost of the handle was recovered and Gillette began to make a profit. Within a decade, Gillette’s company dominated the razor market and made its inventor extremely wealthy. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Truth About Bananas

Fingering the world’s most popular tropical fruit

When I was in college, I had a professor who was known for being a bit on the odd side. Although he was smart, friendly, and much loved by the students, he had some strange and inexplicable habits. For one thing, he had a very peculiar way of speaking, including about a dozen idiosyncratic phrases that he repeated over and over. A friend and I, when we got bored, used to sit in the back of the classroom and keep a tally of how many times he used each of these phrases. The professor always kept a pen clipped to his collar, even if he was wearing a shirt with a pocket (a practice that amused me so much I adopted it myself—and keep it up to this day). And he encouraged us, on multiple-choice exams, to write in our own answers in the margin if we didn’t like any of his.

Every now and then, this professor came to class with the sticker from a banana on his shirt. The brand varied, but the position did not: it was stuck right above the spot where his pen would be, if he had kept it in his pocket the way normal people do. We assumed it was just another one of his silly habits, but one day, a student actually asked him—during class—what was with the stickers. He replied, solemnly, “Oh. Yeah. Well, whenever I have a banana for breakfast that has a sticker on it, I put the sticker on my shirt to remind me of the suffering of the banana pickers in Latin America, who sometimes earn just 50¢ for a 12-hour day of work in grueling conditions. I wear it to show my solidarity with them, as a silent protest for better treatment.” From that day on, we saw the professor in a completely new light—and we started thinking about bananas differently too. As I was later to discover, almost nothing about bananas is as it seems. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Quantifying Despair and Depression

Keep swimming

Sometimes I make jokes about the exact extent to which some event has affected my mental state. For example, my wife will walk into my office with a plate of freshly baked cookies, and I’ll say, “Wow, I’m now 7% happier!” Of course, the reason it works as a joke is that happiness (or the lack thereof) is not only subjective, it’s multifaceted—I may be ecstatic about the cookies, yet still quite unhappy about my taxes.

Doctor, It Feels Like I’m Treading Water
All joking aside, I wondered whether there might be some way of measuring despair. We can certainly tell if it exists or not, and whether it feels severe. But surely psychiatrists have some sort of semi-objective scale of measurement, I figured. I couldn’t imagine one doctor saying to another, “My 10 a.m. is a Venti, but with some Prozac I’m sure we can get him down to a Tall.” So I began searching for references of scales used to measure despair or depression. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Equation of Time

When what you mean is not apparent

When someone asks me how I’m doing, I habitually answer, “Fine,” because that’s what social convention dictates—whether or not I really am fine. Most people probably don’t want to hear the detailed truth, and would be sorry they asked if I told them. Similarly, when people ask what I do for a living, more often than not they’re looking for a quick and easy way to categorize me, rather than a litany of the sundry and somewhat unconventional means by which I earn a living. So I tend to oblige with a short answer that requires no further discussion.

One day, however, I was at a party, and being in an uncharacteristically charitable mood, I decided to tell people what my occupation really is. One guy I spoke to—let’s call him “Bob” (for that is his name)—seemed particularly intrigued by the notion of Interesting Thing of the Day. He scribbled down the URL and promised me he’d send me some suggestions for topics to write about. A few days later, Bob sent me a link to a news article that led off with the following tantalizing claim: “Now we may know why the South lost the Civil War: Confederate time was about a half-hour slower than Yankee time.” I had heard of famous historical blunders based on confusion over differing calendars, but not over differing clocks. How cool. [Article Continues…]

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