From the archives…

Robots that Smell

Artificial noses and beyond

While out for a walk in my neighborhood, I caught a whiff of something that instantly made me think of my grandmother’s house. I haven’t experienced that smell—either from its original source or elsewhere—in well over a decade, but the memory of being back at my grandmother’s house was immediate and striking. On the other hand, I can’t really remember or recreate that smell in my mind; either it’s there or it isn’t. I have convenient analog and digital methods of recording images and sounds so that I can see and hear them later, but no way to capture the scent of a dish at a restaurant, a favorite vacation spot, or any other smell that moves me in some way.

I don’t normally think of smelling as being something within the province of machines. I understand, of course, that devices like smoke detectors and breathalyzers perform what amounts to mechanical olfaction of sorts, but I was still sort of surprised to learn that increasingly sophisticated artificial noses are being incorporated into robots and other devices. What intrigues me more than anything is how such sensors might work. How does one go about measuring and quantifying something as broad and seemingly subjective as smell? [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Hikaru Dorodango

Mud balls as art

Children, I have observed, seem to have an innate affinity for dirt. No matter how recently a parent has dressed the child in freshly laundered clothes, no matter how carefully the parent has attempted to keep the child geographically separated from any substance that might soil or stain, it is just not possible to keep a child clean for more than 60 seconds. I use the word “affinity” advisedly, because it implies not merely a liking, a preference, but a chemical attraction. Kids clearly have a talent for finding dirt, but also, dirt finds them. If you’re a parent, you know what I’m talking about. Eventually, having spent a sum equivalent to your monthly grocery budget on moist towelettes, you give up on keeping the child perpetually clean and set a new, lower but potentially reachable standard of not-entirely-covered-with-mud.

Mud, of course, is that particular species of dirt that children seem to find most fascinating (and which apparently finds them fascinating as well). As far as kids are concerned, mud is cool because it’s gooey and squishy and feels neat and adheres very effectively to your sister’s dress when flung from across the yard. Grown-ups find mud icky for exactly the same reasons, and dried mud, well, that’s somehow an even greater insult to cleanliness—it’s just so…unsightly. Among the words not commonly associated with mud are smooth, shiny, and beautiful. But that’s changing now, thanks to the renaissance of a traditional Japanese art form known as dorodango, shiny mud balls (or, more specifically, hikaru dorodango, ultra-glossy mud balls). Parents are now not only actively encouraging their kids to play in the mud, they’re getting their own hands dirty too as they spend hours refining ordinary dirt into elegant sculptures. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Cow Sharing

Getting the milk for free

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

Humans have been raising cows and drinking their milk for thousands of years, and for most of that time there was only one form that the milk came in: straight from the cow. Different cultures developed ways of transforming that milk into other foods, from yogurt to cheese to butter, but the original liquid stayed the same.

However, when you visit an average supermarket in Europe or North America these days, you are faced with a plethora of choices in the milk aisle. You can have your milk homogenized, that is with the butterfat distributed throughout the milk, or you can buy only the cream skimmed from the top. You can have it in a low-fat or high-fat form, and you can buy it with part of the lactose removed for those who are lactose-intolerant. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Phenomenology

The science of experience

About halfway through college, I decided I was going to major in philosophy. I was one of only four or five philosophy majors in my class, and most of my friends simply couldn’t comprehend why I chose such a field. For one thing, philosophy was obviously the most boring subject in the world, and for another, there didn’t seem to be anything you could do with a degree in philosophy. My classmates would say things like, “I’m majoring in psychology, which means I can become a psychologist. I can have an office and an ad in the yellow pages and people will pay to come talk to me. But there aren’t any philosophers in the yellow pages—look it up. How do you expect to earn a living as a philosopher?” I had no good answer to that question. I didn’t think I wanted to teach philosophy, which is the usual way philosophers make money. But I wasn’t worried about long-term career options or marketability. All I knew was that of all the subjects I’d studied in the past two years, philosophy was the only one that interested me enough to take seriously. It seemed important in a way that, say, history or even science did not—it was a search for answers to the Big Questions: Is there a God? What is the nature of existence? What does it mean to be human? How do we determine right and wrong? I couldn’t imagine wasting my time on lesser questions.

It was not long, of course, before we began talking about Descartes, who in the early 17th century famously said, “I think, therefore I am.” This was not an idle comment; Descartes was looking for a starting point for his philosophical inquiries, some basic principle that, no matter what, could not be doubted. He decided to start by tossing out any belief that could conceivably—even under the unlikeliest conditions—be doubted. For Descartes, it was impossible to doubt his own existence. One could be mistaken about the interpretation of sensory data, but not, he felt, about the experience of thinking. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Tactile Dome

Getting the feel of the Exploratorium

San Francisco’s Exploratorium is an immense (and immensely popular) hands-on science museum. Exhibits cover the usual range of subjects—electricity, physics, optics, biology, and so on—but with a degree of interactive friendliness that’s rare even in the best science museums (and I’ve seen quite a few). Almost everything is designed to be touched, played with, and experimented on—even by young children, whose destructive impulses know no bounds.

Although I had been to the Exploratorium a number of times, there was one exhibit I’d never experienced but always been curious about: something called the Tactile Dome. This is an exhibit for which you must make an advance reservation (and pay extra), and I had never had the foresight to call ahead before visiting the museum to see if there was an open slot. On a visit last summer, when I went to purchase my ticket, I happened to notice a sign saying there were openings at the dome that afternoon. I immediately signed up—after listening to a short speech on all the medical and psychological conditions that would preclude a safe visit and consenting to the non-refundability of the ticket. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Silent Retreats

A different way of listening

In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, one of the main characters is an alien named Ford Prefect from a planet near Betelgeuse. Although he looks, talks, and acts more or less human, there are many things about earthlings that puzzle him, such as the fact that they seem to talk all the time—even if only to repeat the obvious. Over the course of several months, he comes up with a number of theories for this behavior, one of which I found particularly insightful: “If human beings don’t keep exercising their lips, he thought, their brains start working” (p. 49). I’ve frequently noticed, on the one hand, that many people like to surround themselves with sound all the time (making their own if all else fails); and on the other hand, that contemplation is a foreign and uncomfortable concept to most of us. An increasingly popular way of overcoming the sound habit, at least briefly, is to go on a silent retreat.

All Action and No Talk
The idea of a silent retreat is simple: you go somewhere relatively quiet and don’t talk—for a day, a few days, or even longer. Silent retreats usually involve a group of people, so the significant part is not so much that you yourself aren’t speaking but that others aren’t speaking to you. In addition, most other artificial sounds—radio, TV, music, and so on—are avoided, so that for the most part, participants don’t hear any words for long periods of time. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Athabasca Sand Dunes

Saskatchewan’s shifting sands

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

[Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Saturna Island

Less is more (interesting)

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

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

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From the archives…

Curling

Throwing stones for fun and profit

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

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

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From the archives…

Temperate Rain Forests

Trees of life

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

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

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From the archives…

The Vienna Vegetable Orchestra

Grooves from the garden

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

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

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

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From the archives…

The Capilano Suspension Bridge

Vancouver from another point of view

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

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

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From the archives…

Microclimates

Don’t like the weather? Cross the street.

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

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

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From the archives…

Six Degrees of Separation

Is it a small world after all?

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

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

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From the archives…

Invisible Computing

Putting information processing in its place

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

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

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From the archives…

Robots that Smell

Artificial noses and beyond

While out for a walk in my neighborhood, I caught a whiff of something that instantly made me think of my grandmother’s house. I haven’t experienced that smell—either from its original source or elsewhere—in well over a decade, but the memory of being back at my grandmother’s house was immediate and striking. On the other hand, I can’t really remember or recreate that smell in my mind; either it’s there or it isn’t. I have convenient analog and digital methods of recording images and sounds so that I can see and hear them later, but no way to capture the scent of a dish at a restaurant, a favorite vacation spot, or any other smell that moves me in some way.

I don’t normally think of smelling as being something within the province of machines. I understand, of course, that devices like smoke detectors and breathalyzers perform what amounts to mechanical olfaction of sorts, but I was still sort of surprised to learn that increasingly sophisticated artificial noses are being incorporated into robots and other devices. What intrigues me more than anything is how such sensors might work. How does one go about measuring and quantifying something as broad and seemingly subjective as smell? [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Hikaru Dorodango

Mud balls as art

Children, I have observed, seem to have an innate affinity for dirt. No matter how recently a parent has dressed the child in freshly laundered clothes, no matter how carefully the parent has attempted to keep the child geographically separated from any substance that might soil or stain, it is just not possible to keep a child clean for more than 60 seconds. I use the word “affinity” advisedly, because it implies not merely a liking, a preference, but a chemical attraction. Kids clearly have a talent for finding dirt, but also, dirt finds them. If you’re a parent, you know what I’m talking about. Eventually, having spent a sum equivalent to your monthly grocery budget on moist towelettes, you give up on keeping the child perpetually clean and set a new, lower but potentially reachable standard of not-entirely-covered-with-mud.

Mud, of course, is that particular species of dirt that children seem to find most fascinating (and which apparently finds them fascinating as well). As far as kids are concerned, mud is cool because it’s gooey and squishy and feels neat and adheres very effectively to your sister’s dress when flung from across the yard. Grown-ups find mud icky for exactly the same reasons, and dried mud, well, that’s somehow an even greater insult to cleanliness—it’s just so…unsightly. Among the words not commonly associated with mud are smooth, shiny, and beautiful. But that’s changing now, thanks to the renaissance of a traditional Japanese art form known as dorodango, shiny mud balls (or, more specifically, hikaru dorodango, ultra-glossy mud balls). Parents are now not only actively encouraging their kids to play in the mud, they’re getting their own hands dirty too as they spend hours refining ordinary dirt into elegant sculptures. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Cow Sharing

Getting the milk for free

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

Humans have been raising cows and drinking their milk for thousands of years, and for most of that time there was only one form that the milk came in: straight from the cow. Different cultures developed ways of transforming that milk into other foods, from yogurt to cheese to butter, but the original liquid stayed the same.

However, when you visit an average supermarket in Europe or North America these days, you are faced with a plethora of choices in the milk aisle. You can have your milk homogenized, that is with the butterfat distributed throughout the milk, or you can buy only the cream skimmed from the top. You can have it in a low-fat or high-fat form, and you can buy it with part of the lactose removed for those who are lactose-intolerant. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Phenomenology

The science of experience

About halfway through college, I decided I was going to major in philosophy. I was one of only four or five philosophy majors in my class, and most of my friends simply couldn’t comprehend why I chose such a field. For one thing, philosophy was obviously the most boring subject in the world, and for another, there didn’t seem to be anything you could do with a degree in philosophy. My classmates would say things like, “I’m majoring in psychology, which means I can become a psychologist. I can have an office and an ad in the yellow pages and people will pay to come talk to me. But there aren’t any philosophers in the yellow pages—look it up. How do you expect to earn a living as a philosopher?” I had no good answer to that question. I didn’t think I wanted to teach philosophy, which is the usual way philosophers make money. But I wasn’t worried about long-term career options or marketability. All I knew was that of all the subjects I’d studied in the past two years, philosophy was the only one that interested me enough to take seriously. It seemed important in a way that, say, history or even science did not—it was a search for answers to the Big Questions: Is there a God? What is the nature of existence? What does it mean to be human? How do we determine right and wrong? I couldn’t imagine wasting my time on lesser questions.

It was not long, of course, before we began talking about Descartes, who in the early 17th century famously said, “I think, therefore I am.” This was not an idle comment; Descartes was looking for a starting point for his philosophical inquiries, some basic principle that, no matter what, could not be doubted. He decided to start by tossing out any belief that could conceivably—even under the unlikeliest conditions—be doubted. For Descartes, it was impossible to doubt his own existence. One could be mistaken about the interpretation of sensory data, but not, he felt, about the experience of thinking. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Tactile Dome

Getting the feel of the Exploratorium

San Francisco’s Exploratorium is an immense (and immensely popular) hands-on science museum. Exhibits cover the usual range of subjects—electricity, physics, optics, biology, and so on—but with a degree of interactive friendliness that’s rare even in the best science museums (and I’ve seen quite a few). Almost everything is designed to be touched, played with, and experimented on—even by young children, whose destructive impulses know no bounds.

Although I had been to the Exploratorium a number of times, there was one exhibit I’d never experienced but always been curious about: something called the Tactile Dome. This is an exhibit for which you must make an advance reservation (and pay extra), and I had never had the foresight to call ahead before visiting the museum to see if there was an open slot. On a visit last summer, when I went to purchase my ticket, I happened to notice a sign saying there were openings at the dome that afternoon. I immediately signed up—after listening to a short speech on all the medical and psychological conditions that would preclude a safe visit and consenting to the non-refundability of the ticket. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Silent Retreats

A different way of listening

In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, one of the main characters is an alien named Ford Prefect from a planet near Betelgeuse. Although he looks, talks, and acts more or less human, there are many things about earthlings that puzzle him, such as the fact that they seem to talk all the time—even if only to repeat the obvious. Over the course of several months, he comes up with a number of theories for this behavior, one of which I found particularly insightful: “If human beings don’t keep exercising their lips, he thought, their brains start working” (p. 49). I’ve frequently noticed, on the one hand, that many people like to surround themselves with sound all the time (making their own if all else fails); and on the other hand, that contemplation is a foreign and uncomfortable concept to most of us. An increasingly popular way of overcoming the sound habit, at least briefly, is to go on a silent retreat.

All Action and No Talk
The idea of a silent retreat is simple: you go somewhere relatively quiet and don’t talk—for a day, a few days, or even longer. Silent retreats usually involve a group of people, so the significant part is not so much that you yourself aren’t speaking but that others aren’t speaking to you. In addition, most other artificial sounds—radio, TV, music, and so on—are avoided, so that for the most part, participants don’t hear any words for long periods of time. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Athabasca Sand Dunes

Saskatchewan’s shifting sands

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

[Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Saturna Island

Less is more (interesting)

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

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

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From the archives…

Curling

Throwing stones for fun and profit

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

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

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From the archives…

Temperate Rain Forests

Trees of life

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

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

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From the archives…

The Vienna Vegetable Orchestra

Grooves from the garden

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

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

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

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From the archives…

The Capilano Suspension Bridge

Vancouver from another point of view

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

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

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From the archives…

Microclimates

Don’t like the weather? Cross the street.

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

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

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From the archives…

Six Degrees of Separation

Is it a small world after all?

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

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

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From the archives…

Invisible Computing

Putting information processing in its place

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

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

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From the archives…

Robots that Smell

Artificial noses and beyond

While out for a walk in my neighborhood, I caught a whiff of something that instantly made me think of my grandmother’s house. I haven’t experienced that smell—either from its original source or elsewhere—in well over a decade, but the memory of being back at my grandmother’s house was immediate and striking. On the other hand, I can’t really remember or recreate that smell in my mind; either it’s there or it isn’t. I have convenient analog and digital methods of recording images and sounds so that I can see and hear them later, but no way to capture the scent of a dish at a restaurant, a favorite vacation spot, or any other smell that moves me in some way.

I don’t normally think of smelling as being something within the province of machines. I understand, of course, that devices like smoke detectors and breathalyzers perform what amounts to mechanical olfaction of sorts, but I was still sort of surprised to learn that increasingly sophisticated artificial noses are being incorporated into robots and other devices. What intrigues me more than anything is how such sensors might work. How does one go about measuring and quantifying something as broad and seemingly subjective as smell? [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Hikaru Dorodango

Mud balls as art

Children, I have observed, seem to have an innate affinity for dirt. No matter how recently a parent has dressed the child in freshly laundered clothes, no matter how carefully the parent has attempted to keep the child geographically separated from any substance that might soil or stain, it is just not possible to keep a child clean for more than 60 seconds. I use the word “affinity” advisedly, because it implies not merely a liking, a preference, but a chemical attraction. Kids clearly have a talent for finding dirt, but also, dirt finds them. If you’re a parent, you know what I’m talking about. Eventually, having spent a sum equivalent to your monthly grocery budget on moist towelettes, you give up on keeping the child perpetually clean and set a new, lower but potentially reachable standard of not-entirely-covered-with-mud.

Mud, of course, is that particular species of dirt that children seem to find most fascinating (and which apparently finds them fascinating as well). As far as kids are concerned, mud is cool because it’s gooey and squishy and feels neat and adheres very effectively to your sister’s dress when flung from across the yard. Grown-ups find mud icky for exactly the same reasons, and dried mud, well, that’s somehow an even greater insult to cleanliness—it’s just so…unsightly. Among the words not commonly associated with mud are smooth, shiny, and beautiful. But that’s changing now, thanks to the renaissance of a traditional Japanese art form known as dorodango, shiny mud balls (or, more specifically, hikaru dorodango, ultra-glossy mud balls). Parents are now not only actively encouraging their kids to play in the mud, they’re getting their own hands dirty too as they spend hours refining ordinary dirt into elegant sculptures. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Cow Sharing

Getting the milk for free

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

Humans have been raising cows and drinking their milk for thousands of years, and for most of that time there was only one form that the milk came in: straight from the cow. Different cultures developed ways of transforming that milk into other foods, from yogurt to cheese to butter, but the original liquid stayed the same.

However, when you visit an average supermarket in Europe or North America these days, you are faced with a plethora of choices in the milk aisle. You can have your milk homogenized, that is with the butterfat distributed throughout the milk, or you can buy only the cream skimmed from the top. You can have it in a low-fat or high-fat form, and you can buy it with part of the lactose removed for those who are lactose-intolerant. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Phenomenology

The science of experience

About halfway through college, I decided I was going to major in philosophy. I was one of only four or five philosophy majors in my class, and most of my friends simply couldn’t comprehend why I chose such a field. For one thing, philosophy was obviously the most boring subject in the world, and for another, there didn’t seem to be anything you could do with a degree in philosophy. My classmates would say things like, “I’m majoring in psychology, which means I can become a psychologist. I can have an office and an ad in the yellow pages and people will pay to come talk to me. But there aren’t any philosophers in the yellow pages—look it up. How do you expect to earn a living as a philosopher?” I had no good answer to that question. I didn’t think I wanted to teach philosophy, which is the usual way philosophers make money. But I wasn’t worried about long-term career options or marketability. All I knew was that of all the subjects I’d studied in the past two years, philosophy was the only one that interested me enough to take seriously. It seemed important in a way that, say, history or even science did not—it was a search for answers to the Big Questions: Is there a God? What is the nature of existence? What does it mean to be human? How do we determine right and wrong? I couldn’t imagine wasting my time on lesser questions.

It was not long, of course, before we began talking about Descartes, who in the early 17th century famously said, “I think, therefore I am.” This was not an idle comment; Descartes was looking for a starting point for his philosophical inquiries, some basic principle that, no matter what, could not be doubted. He decided to start by tossing out any belief that could conceivably—even under the unlikeliest conditions—be doubted. For Descartes, it was impossible to doubt his own existence. One could be mistaken about the interpretation of sensory data, but not, he felt, about the experience of thinking. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Tactile Dome

Getting the feel of the Exploratorium

San Francisco’s Exploratorium is an immense (and immensely popular) hands-on science museum. Exhibits cover the usual range of subjects—electricity, physics, optics, biology, and so on—but with a degree of interactive friendliness that’s rare even in the best science museums (and I’ve seen quite a few). Almost everything is designed to be touched, played with, and experimented on—even by young children, whose destructive impulses know no bounds.

Although I had been to the Exploratorium a number of times, there was one exhibit I’d never experienced but always been curious about: something called the Tactile Dome. This is an exhibit for which you must make an advance reservation (and pay extra), and I had never had the foresight to call ahead before visiting the museum to see if there was an open slot. On a visit last summer, when I went to purchase my ticket, I happened to notice a sign saying there were openings at the dome that afternoon. I immediately signed up—after listening to a short speech on all the medical and psychological conditions that would preclude a safe visit and consenting to the non-refundability of the ticket. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Silent Retreats

A different way of listening

In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, one of the main characters is an alien named Ford Prefect from a planet near Betelgeuse. Although he looks, talks, and acts more or less human, there are many things about earthlings that puzzle him, such as the fact that they seem to talk all the time—even if only to repeat the obvious. Over the course of several months, he comes up with a number of theories for this behavior, one of which I found particularly insightful: “If human beings don’t keep exercising their lips, he thought, their brains start working” (p. 49). I’ve frequently noticed, on the one hand, that many people like to surround themselves with sound all the time (making their own if all else fails); and on the other hand, that contemplation is a foreign and uncomfortable concept to most of us. An increasingly popular way of overcoming the sound habit, at least briefly, is to go on a silent retreat.

All Action and No Talk
The idea of a silent retreat is simple: you go somewhere relatively quiet and don’t talk—for a day, a few days, or even longer. Silent retreats usually involve a group of people, so the significant part is not so much that you yourself aren’t speaking but that others aren’t speaking to you. In addition, most other artificial sounds—radio, TV, music, and so on—are avoided, so that for the most part, participants don’t hear any words for long periods of time. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Athabasca Sand Dunes

Saskatchewan’s shifting sands

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

[Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Saturna Island

Less is more (interesting)

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

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

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From the archives…

Curling

Throwing stones for fun and profit

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

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

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From the archives…

Temperate Rain Forests

Trees of life

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

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

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From the archives…

The Vienna Vegetable Orchestra

Grooves from the garden

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

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

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

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From the archives…

The Capilano Suspension Bridge

Vancouver from another point of view

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

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

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From the archives…

Microclimates

Don’t like the weather? Cross the street.

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

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

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From the archives…

Six Degrees of Separation

Is it a small world after all?

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

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

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From the archives…

Invisible Computing

Putting information processing in its place

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

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

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From the archives…

Robots that Smell

Artificial noses and beyond

While out for a walk in my neighborhood, I caught a whiff of something that instantly made me think of my grandmother’s house. I haven’t experienced that smell—either from its original source or elsewhere—in well over a decade, but the memory of being back at my grandmother’s house was immediate and striking. On the other hand, I can’t really remember or recreate that smell in my mind; either it’s there or it isn’t. I have convenient analog and digital methods of recording images and sounds so that I can see and hear them later, but no way to capture the scent of a dish at a restaurant, a favorite vacation spot, or any other smell that moves me in some way.

I don’t normally think of smelling as being something within the province of machines. I understand, of course, that devices like smoke detectors and breathalyzers perform what amounts to mechanical olfaction of sorts, but I was still sort of surprised to learn that increasingly sophisticated artificial noses are being incorporated into robots and other devices. What intrigues me more than anything is how such sensors might work. How does one go about measuring and quantifying something as broad and seemingly subjective as smell? [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Hikaru Dorodango

Mud balls as art

Children, I have observed, seem to have an innate affinity for dirt. No matter how recently a parent has dressed the child in freshly laundered clothes, no matter how carefully the parent has attempted to keep the child geographically separated from any substance that might soil or stain, it is just not possible to keep a child clean for more than 60 seconds. I use the word “affinity” advisedly, because it implies not merely a liking, a preference, but a chemical attraction. Kids clearly have a talent for finding dirt, but also, dirt finds them. If you’re a parent, you know what I’m talking about. Eventually, having spent a sum equivalent to your monthly grocery budget on moist towelettes, you give up on keeping the child perpetually clean and set a new, lower but potentially reachable standard of not-entirely-covered-with-mud.

Mud, of course, is that particular species of dirt that children seem to find most fascinating (and which apparently finds them fascinating as well). As far as kids are concerned, mud is cool because it’s gooey and squishy and feels neat and adheres very effectively to your sister’s dress when flung from across the yard. Grown-ups find mud icky for exactly the same reasons, and dried mud, well, that’s somehow an even greater insult to cleanliness—it’s just so…unsightly. Among the words not commonly associated with mud are smooth, shiny, and beautiful. But that’s changing now, thanks to the renaissance of a traditional Japanese art form known as dorodango, shiny mud balls (or, more specifically, hikaru dorodango, ultra-glossy mud balls). Parents are now not only actively encouraging their kids to play in the mud, they’re getting their own hands dirty too as they spend hours refining ordinary dirt into elegant sculptures. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Cow Sharing

Getting the milk for free

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

Humans have been raising cows and drinking their milk for thousands of years, and for most of that time there was only one form that the milk came in: straight from the cow. Different cultures developed ways of transforming that milk into other foods, from yogurt to cheese to butter, but the original liquid stayed the same.

However, when you visit an average supermarket in Europe or North America these days, you are faced with a plethora of choices in the milk aisle. You can have your milk homogenized, that is with the butterfat distributed throughout the milk, or you can buy only the cream skimmed from the top. You can have it in a low-fat or high-fat form, and you can buy it with part of the lactose removed for those who are lactose-intolerant. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Phenomenology

The science of experience

About halfway through college, I decided I was going to major in philosophy. I was one of only four or five philosophy majors in my class, and most of my friends simply couldn’t comprehend why I chose such a field. For one thing, philosophy was obviously the most boring subject in the world, and for another, there didn’t seem to be anything you could do with a degree in philosophy. My classmates would say things like, “I’m majoring in psychology, which means I can become a psychologist. I can have an office and an ad in the yellow pages and people will pay to come talk to me. But there aren’t any philosophers in the yellow pages—look it up. How do you expect to earn a living as a philosopher?” I had no good answer to that question. I didn’t think I wanted to teach philosophy, which is the usual way philosophers make money. But I wasn’t worried about long-term career options or marketability. All I knew was that of all the subjects I’d studied in the past two years, philosophy was the only one that interested me enough to take seriously. It seemed important in a way that, say, history or even science did not—it was a search for answers to the Big Questions: Is there a God? What is the nature of existence? What does it mean to be human? How do we determine right and wrong? I couldn’t imagine wasting my time on lesser questions.

It was not long, of course, before we began talking about Descartes, who in the early 17th century famously said, “I think, therefore I am.” This was not an idle comment; Descartes was looking for a starting point for his philosophical inquiries, some basic principle that, no matter what, could not be doubted. He decided to start by tossing out any belief that could conceivably—even under the unlikeliest conditions—be doubted. For Descartes, it was impossible to doubt his own existence. One could be mistaken about the interpretation of sensory data, but not, he felt, about the experience of thinking. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Tactile Dome

Getting the feel of the Exploratorium

San Francisco’s Exploratorium is an immense (and immensely popular) hands-on science museum. Exhibits cover the usual range of subjects—electricity, physics, optics, biology, and so on—but with a degree of interactive friendliness that’s rare even in the best science museums (and I’ve seen quite a few). Almost everything is designed to be touched, played with, and experimented on—even by young children, whose destructive impulses know no bounds.

Although I had been to the Exploratorium a number of times, there was one exhibit I’d never experienced but always been curious about: something called the Tactile Dome. This is an exhibit for which you must make an advance reservation (and pay extra), and I had never had the foresight to call ahead before visiting the museum to see if there was an open slot. On a visit last summer, when I went to purchase my ticket, I happened to notice a sign saying there were openings at the dome that afternoon. I immediately signed up—after listening to a short speech on all the medical and psychological conditions that would preclude a safe visit and consenting to the non-refundability of the ticket. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Silent Retreats

A different way of listening

In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, one of the main characters is an alien named Ford Prefect from a planet near Betelgeuse. Although he looks, talks, and acts more or less human, there are many things about earthlings that puzzle him, such as the fact that they seem to talk all the time—even if only to repeat the obvious. Over the course of several months, he comes up with a number of theories for this behavior, one of which I found particularly insightful: “If human beings don’t keep exercising their lips, he thought, their brains start working” (p. 49). I’ve frequently noticed, on the one hand, that many people like to surround themselves with sound all the time (making their own if all else fails); and on the other hand, that contemplation is a foreign and uncomfortable concept to most of us. An increasingly popular way of overcoming the sound habit, at least briefly, is to go on a silent retreat.

All Action and No Talk
The idea of a silent retreat is simple: you go somewhere relatively quiet and don’t talk—for a day, a few days, or even longer. Silent retreats usually involve a group of people, so the significant part is not so much that you yourself aren’t speaking but that others aren’t speaking to you. In addition, most other artificial sounds—radio, TV, music, and so on—are avoided, so that for the most part, participants don’t hear any words for long periods of time. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Athabasca Sand Dunes

Saskatchewan’s shifting sands

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

[Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Saturna Island

Less is more (interesting)

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

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

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From the archives…

Curling

Throwing stones for fun and profit

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

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

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From the archives…

Temperate Rain Forests

Trees of life

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

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

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From the archives…

The Vienna Vegetable Orchestra

Grooves from the garden

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

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

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

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From the archives…

The Capilano Suspension Bridge

Vancouver from another point of view

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

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

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From the archives…

Microclimates

Don’t like the weather? Cross the street.

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

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

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From the archives…

Six Degrees of Separation

Is it a small world after all?

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

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

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From the archives…

Invisible Computing

Putting information processing in its place

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

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

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From the archives…

Hikaru Dorodango

Mud balls as art

Children, I have observed, seem to have an innate affinity for dirt. No matter how recently a parent has dressed the child in freshly laundered clothes, no matter how carefully the parent has attempted to keep the child geographically separated from any substance that might soil or stain, it is just not possible to keep a child clean for more than 60 seconds. I use the word “affinity” advisedly, because it implies not merely a liking, a preference, but a chemical attraction. Kids clearly have a talent for finding dirt, but also, dirt finds them. If you’re a parent, you know what I’m talking about. Eventually, having spent a sum equivalent to your monthly grocery budget on moist towelettes, you give up on keeping the child perpetually clean and set a new, lower but potentially reachable standard of not-entirely-covered-with-mud.

Mud, of course, is that particular species of dirt that children seem to find most fascinating (and which apparently finds them fascinating as well). As far as kids are concerned, mud is cool because it’s gooey and squishy and feels neat and adheres very effectively to your sister’s dress when flung from across the yard. Grown-ups find mud icky for exactly the same reasons, and dried mud, well, that’s somehow an even greater insult to cleanliness—it’s just so…unsightly. Among the words not commonly associated with mud are smooth, shiny, and beautiful. But that’s changing now, thanks to the renaissance of a traditional Japanese art form known as dorodango, shiny mud balls (or, more specifically, hikaru dorodango, ultra-glossy mud balls). Parents are now not only actively encouraging their kids to play in the mud, they’re getting their own hands dirty too as they spend hours refining ordinary dirt into elegant sculptures. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Cow Sharing

Getting the milk for free

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

Humans have been raising cows and drinking their milk for thousands of years, and for most of that time there was only one form that the milk came in: straight from the cow. Different cultures developed ways of transforming that milk into other foods, from yogurt to cheese to butter, but the original liquid stayed the same.

However, when you visit an average supermarket in Europe or North America these days, you are faced with a plethora of choices in the milk aisle. You can have your milk homogenized, that is with the butterfat distributed throughout the milk, or you can buy only the cream skimmed from the top. You can have it in a low-fat or high-fat form, and you can buy it with part of the lactose removed for those who are lactose-intolerant. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Vienna Vegetable Orchestra

Grooves from the garden

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

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

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

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From the archives…

Robots that Smell

Artificial noses and beyond

While out for a walk in my neighborhood, I caught a whiff of something that instantly made me think of my grandmother’s house. I haven’t experienced that smell—either from its original source or elsewhere—in well over a decade, but the memory of being back at my grandmother’s house was immediate and striking. On the other hand, I can’t really remember or recreate that smell in my mind; either it’s there or it isn’t. I have convenient analog and digital methods of recording images and sounds so that I can see and hear them later, but no way to capture the scent of a dish at a restaurant, a favorite vacation spot, or any other smell that moves me in some way.

I don’t normally think of smelling as being something within the province of machines. I understand, of course, that devices like smoke detectors and breathalyzers perform what amounts to mechanical olfaction of sorts, but I was still sort of surprised to learn that increasingly sophisticated artificial noses are being incorporated into robots and other devices. What intrigues me more than anything is how such sensors might work. How does one go about measuring and quantifying something as broad and seemingly subjective as smell? [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Phenomenology

The science of experience

About halfway through college, I decided I was going to major in philosophy. I was one of only four or five philosophy majors in my class, and most of my friends simply couldn’t comprehend why I chose such a field. For one thing, philosophy was obviously the most boring subject in the world, and for another, there didn’t seem to be anything you could do with a degree in philosophy. My classmates would say things like, “I’m majoring in psychology, which means I can become a psychologist. I can have an office and an ad in the yellow pages and people will pay to come talk to me. But there aren’t any philosophers in the yellow pages—look it up. How do you expect to earn a living as a philosopher?” I had no good answer to that question. I didn’t think I wanted to teach philosophy, which is the usual way philosophers make money. But I wasn’t worried about long-term career options or marketability. All I knew was that of all the subjects I’d studied in the past two years, philosophy was the only one that interested me enough to take seriously. It seemed important in a way that, say, history or even science did not—it was a search for answers to the Big Questions: Is there a God? What is the nature of existence? What does it mean to be human? How do we determine right and wrong? I couldn’t imagine wasting my time on lesser questions.

It was not long, of course, before we began talking about Descartes, who in the early 17th century famously said, “I think, therefore I am.” This was not an idle comment; Descartes was looking for a starting point for his philosophical inquiries, some basic principle that, no matter what, could not be doubted. He decided to start by tossing out any belief that could conceivably—even under the unlikeliest conditions—be doubted. For Descartes, it was impossible to doubt his own existence. One could be mistaken about the interpretation of sensory data, but not, he felt, about the experience of thinking. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Tactile Dome

Getting the feel of the Exploratorium

San Francisco’s Exploratorium is an immense (and immensely popular) hands-on science museum. Exhibits cover the usual range of subjects—electricity, physics, optics, biology, and so on—but with a degree of interactive friendliness that’s rare even in the best science museums (and I’ve seen quite a few). Almost everything is designed to be touched, played with, and experimented on—even by young children, whose destructive impulses know no bounds.

Although I had been to the Exploratorium a number of times, there was one exhibit I’d never experienced but always been curious about: something called the Tactile Dome. This is an exhibit for which you must make an advance reservation (and pay extra), and I had never had the foresight to call ahead before visiting the museum to see if there was an open slot. On a visit last summer, when I went to purchase my ticket, I happened to notice a sign saying there were openings at the dome that afternoon. I immediately signed up—after listening to a short speech on all the medical and psychological conditions that would preclude a safe visit and consenting to the non-refundability of the ticket. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Silent Retreats

A different way of listening

In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, one of the main characters is an alien named Ford Prefect from a planet near Betelgeuse. Although he looks, talks, and acts more or less human, there are many things about earthlings that puzzle him, such as the fact that they seem to talk all the time—even if only to repeat the obvious. Over the course of several months, he comes up with a number of theories for this behavior, one of which I found particularly insightful: “If human beings don’t keep exercising their lips, he thought, their brains start working” (p. 49). I’ve frequently noticed, on the one hand, that many people like to surround themselves with sound all the time (making their own if all else fails); and on the other hand, that contemplation is a foreign and uncomfortable concept to most of us. An increasingly popular way of overcoming the sound habit, at least briefly, is to go on a silent retreat.

All Action and No Talk
The idea of a silent retreat is simple: you go somewhere relatively quiet and don’t talk—for a day, a few days, or even longer. Silent retreats usually involve a group of people, so the significant part is not so much that you yourself aren’t speaking but that others aren’t speaking to you. In addition, most other artificial sounds—radio, TV, music, and so on—are avoided, so that for the most part, participants don’t hear any words for long periods of time. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Athabasca Sand Dunes

Saskatchewan’s shifting sands

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

[Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Saturna Island

Less is more (interesting)

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

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

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From the archives…

Curling

Throwing stones for fun and profit

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

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

•••••

From the archives…

Temperate Rain Forests

Trees of life

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

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

•••••

From the archives…

The Capilano Suspension Bridge

Vancouver from another point of view

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

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

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From the archives…

Microclimates

Don’t like the weather? Cross the street.

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

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

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From the archives…

Six Degrees of Separation

Is it a small world after all?

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

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

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From the archives…

Invisible Computing

Putting information processing in its place

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

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

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