From the archives…

Optical Painters' Aids

A matter of perspective

Although I like to think of myself as a multitalented “Renaissance man” of sorts, I must admit that when it comes to drawing and painting, I have absolutely no ability. I’m truly pitiful at Pictionary, and I couldn’t paint my way out of a paper bag. Or so I’ve always thought. Based on what I’ve been reading lately, I could probably produce some fantastic art from the inside of a very large paper bag, as long as it had a pinhole on one side and pretty bright light outside. All I’d have to do is trace the image projected by this primitive camera obscura. According to a controversial theory, this technique—or something very much like it—gave some world-renowned artists a little help as far back as 1420. Then again…maybe not. Getting to the bottom of this puzzle has been the consuming passion of quite a few artists, historians, and optical engineers over the past several years.

Without a Trace
Tracing over a projected image is a straightforward notion, but if you’ve ever tried it (as I have) you probably discovered that getting good results is not as easy as it sounds. The easy part is getting the proportions right. But lots of things in any image lack well-defined borders, and trying to make sense of textures and the effects of light and shadow while tracing something is quite a complex undertaking. If, instead of tracing, I were painting, the challenge would become even greater, as I’d have to carefully match gradations in color—and as soon as I applied a dark paint to the light surface, the image in that area would virtually disappear. All that to say: projection or no projection, producing a convincingly realistic drawing or painting takes a lot of skill and practice. So if it turned out that one of the great masters from centuries ago really did pull this off, I’d be no less impressed by the final product—and more impressed by the artist’s cleverness. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Milgram Obedience Experiments

Just following orders

As a teenager, I never thought of myself as someone who had a problem with authority. I may not have liked what I was being told to do, and I may have complained, but it was not in my nature to say no. I had my first crisis of authority when I was 16. I was learning to drive, and I’d already failed my driving test—twice. (The first time, I couldn’t parallel park and I ran into a cone; the second time, I didn’t come to a complete stop at a stop sign.) After several more weeks of practicing and diligently studying the driver’s manual, I was taking my third and final test. If I failed that, I’d have to apply for a learner’s permit all over again and endure embarrassing months of being the only person my age without a license. So the pressure was on. With the examiner, a police officer, in the passenger’s seat and sweat on my brow, I carefully completed the entire course—and I thought I did well.

At the very end, the officer told me to pull over at a certain spot and park the car. And I had a moment of complete panic: the spot he’d indicated was just a few feet from a stop sign, and I remembered from the driver’s manual that it was illegal to park so close. Was this one last test? If I obeyed, I thought, I could be failed for breaking the law. So I hesitated and said, “Isn’t that too close to the stop sign?” The officer became furious and started berating me for my arrogance, reminding me that the manual said, “…unless directed otherwise by a uniformed officer of the law.” Tugging at his sleeve, he ranted, “What does this look like, my pajamas?” He went on and on until I was about ready to shrivel up and die, but in the end, he passed me anyway. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

InterPlay

Getting grown-ups back into their bodies

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

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

•••••

From the archives…

Parkour

Turning a city into an obstacle course

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

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

•••••

From the archives…

Operation Migration

Follow that airplane!

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

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

•••••

From the archives…

Portmanteau

When words intertwingle

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

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

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

•••••

From the archives…

Passenger Pigeons

The great American extinction

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

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

•••••

From the archives…

Leonardo's Robots

Renaissance man meets mechanical man

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The 1715 Spanish Plate Fleet

Disaster on the Treasure Coast

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Autogyro

Taking the proto-helicopter for a spin

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Sedna's Moon

Mysteries of the solar system’s most distant member

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Pont d'Avignon

Miracle bridge to nowhere

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Story of Toilet Paper

What goes around, comes around

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Wet Collodion Process

Developing a better negative

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Biodegradable Plastic

The quest for impermanence

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Optical Painters' Aids

A matter of perspective

Although I like to think of myself as a multitalented “Renaissance man” of sorts, I must admit that when it comes to drawing and painting, I have absolutely no ability. I’m truly pitiful at Pictionary, and I couldn’t paint my way out of a paper bag. Or so I’ve always thought. Based on what I’ve been reading lately, I could probably produce some fantastic art from the inside of a very large paper bag, as long as it had a pinhole on one side and pretty bright light outside. All I’d have to do is trace the image projected by this primitive camera obscura. According to a controversial theory, this technique—or something very much like it—gave some world-renowned artists a little help as far back as 1420. Then again…maybe not. Getting to the bottom of this puzzle has been the consuming passion of quite a few artists, historians, and optical engineers over the past several years.

Without a Trace
Tracing over a projected image is a straightforward notion, but if you’ve ever tried it (as I have) you probably discovered that getting good results is not as easy as it sounds. The easy part is getting the proportions right. But lots of things in any image lack well-defined borders, and trying to make sense of textures and the effects of light and shadow while tracing something is quite a complex undertaking. If, instead of tracing, I were painting, the challenge would become even greater, as I’d have to carefully match gradations in color—and as soon as I applied a dark paint to the light surface, the image in that area would virtually disappear. All that to say: projection or no projection, producing a convincingly realistic drawing or painting takes a lot of skill and practice. So if it turned out that one of the great masters from centuries ago really did pull this off, I’d be no less impressed by the final product—and more impressed by the artist’s cleverness. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Milgram Obedience Experiments

Just following orders

As a teenager, I never thought of myself as someone who had a problem with authority. I may not have liked what I was being told to do, and I may have complained, but it was not in my nature to say no. I had my first crisis of authority when I was 16. I was learning to drive, and I’d already failed my driving test—twice. (The first time, I couldn’t parallel park and I ran into a cone; the second time, I didn’t come to a complete stop at a stop sign.) After several more weeks of practicing and diligently studying the driver’s manual, I was taking my third and final test. If I failed that, I’d have to apply for a learner’s permit all over again and endure embarrassing months of being the only person my age without a license. So the pressure was on. With the examiner, a police officer, in the passenger’s seat and sweat on my brow, I carefully completed the entire course—and I thought I did well.

At the very end, the officer told me to pull over at a certain spot and park the car. And I had a moment of complete panic: the spot he’d indicated was just a few feet from a stop sign, and I remembered from the driver’s manual that it was illegal to park so close. Was this one last test? If I obeyed, I thought, I could be failed for breaking the law. So I hesitated and said, “Isn’t that too close to the stop sign?” The officer became furious and started berating me for my arrogance, reminding me that the manual said, “…unless directed otherwise by a uniformed officer of the law.” Tugging at his sleeve, he ranted, “What does this look like, my pajamas?” He went on and on until I was about ready to shrivel up and die, but in the end, he passed me anyway. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

InterPlay

Getting grown-ups back into their bodies

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

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

•••••

From the archives…

Parkour

Turning a city into an obstacle course

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

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

•••••

From the archives…

Operation Migration

Follow that airplane!

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

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

•••••

From the archives…

Portmanteau

When words intertwingle

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

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

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

•••••

From the archives…

Passenger Pigeons

The great American extinction

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

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

•••••

From the archives…

Leonardo's Robots

Renaissance man meets mechanical man

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The 1715 Spanish Plate Fleet

Disaster on the Treasure Coast

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Autogyro

Taking the proto-helicopter for a spin

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Sedna's Moon

Mysteries of the solar system’s most distant member

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Pont d'Avignon

Miracle bridge to nowhere

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Story of Toilet Paper

What goes around, comes around

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Wet Collodion Process

Developing a better negative

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Biodegradable Plastic

The quest for impermanence

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Optical Painters' Aids

A matter of perspective

Although I like to think of myself as a multitalented “Renaissance man” of sorts, I must admit that when it comes to drawing and painting, I have absolutely no ability. I’m truly pitiful at Pictionary, and I couldn’t paint my way out of a paper bag. Or so I’ve always thought. Based on what I’ve been reading lately, I could probably produce some fantastic art from the inside of a very large paper bag, as long as it had a pinhole on one side and pretty bright light outside. All I’d have to do is trace the image projected by this primitive camera obscura. According to a controversial theory, this technique—or something very much like it—gave some world-renowned artists a little help as far back as 1420. Then again…maybe not. Getting to the bottom of this puzzle has been the consuming passion of quite a few artists, historians, and optical engineers over the past several years.

Without a Trace
Tracing over a projected image is a straightforward notion, but if you’ve ever tried it (as I have) you probably discovered that getting good results is not as easy as it sounds. The easy part is getting the proportions right. But lots of things in any image lack well-defined borders, and trying to make sense of textures and the effects of light and shadow while tracing something is quite a complex undertaking. If, instead of tracing, I were painting, the challenge would become even greater, as I’d have to carefully match gradations in color—and as soon as I applied a dark paint to the light surface, the image in that area would virtually disappear. All that to say: projection or no projection, producing a convincingly realistic drawing or painting takes a lot of skill and practice. So if it turned out that one of the great masters from centuries ago really did pull this off, I’d be no less impressed by the final product—and more impressed by the artist’s cleverness. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Milgram Obedience Experiments

Just following orders

As a teenager, I never thought of myself as someone who had a problem with authority. I may not have liked what I was being told to do, and I may have complained, but it was not in my nature to say no. I had my first crisis of authority when I was 16. I was learning to drive, and I’d already failed my driving test—twice. (The first time, I couldn’t parallel park and I ran into a cone; the second time, I didn’t come to a complete stop at a stop sign.) After several more weeks of practicing and diligently studying the driver’s manual, I was taking my third and final test. If I failed that, I’d have to apply for a learner’s permit all over again and endure embarrassing months of being the only person my age without a license. So the pressure was on. With the examiner, a police officer, in the passenger’s seat and sweat on my brow, I carefully completed the entire course—and I thought I did well.

At the very end, the officer told me to pull over at a certain spot and park the car. And I had a moment of complete panic: the spot he’d indicated was just a few feet from a stop sign, and I remembered from the driver’s manual that it was illegal to park so close. Was this one last test? If I obeyed, I thought, I could be failed for breaking the law. So I hesitated and said, “Isn’t that too close to the stop sign?” The officer became furious and started berating me for my arrogance, reminding me that the manual said, “…unless directed otherwise by a uniformed officer of the law.” Tugging at his sleeve, he ranted, “What does this look like, my pajamas?” He went on and on until I was about ready to shrivel up and die, but in the end, he passed me anyway. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

InterPlay

Getting grown-ups back into their bodies

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

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

•••••

From the archives…

Parkour

Turning a city into an obstacle course

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

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

•••••

From the archives…

Operation Migration

Follow that airplane!

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

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

•••••

From the archives…

Portmanteau

When words intertwingle

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

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

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

•••••

From the archives…

Passenger Pigeons

The great American extinction

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

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

•••••

From the archives…

Leonardo's Robots

Renaissance man meets mechanical man

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The 1715 Spanish Plate Fleet

Disaster on the Treasure Coast

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Autogyro

Taking the proto-helicopter for a spin

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Sedna's Moon

Mysteries of the solar system’s most distant member

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Pont d'Avignon

Miracle bridge to nowhere

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Story of Toilet Paper

What goes around, comes around

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Wet Collodion Process

Developing a better negative

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Biodegradable Plastic

The quest for impermanence

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Optical Painters' Aids

A matter of perspective

Although I like to think of myself as a multitalented “Renaissance man” of sorts, I must admit that when it comes to drawing and painting, I have absolutely no ability. I’m truly pitiful at Pictionary, and I couldn’t paint my way out of a paper bag. Or so I’ve always thought. Based on what I’ve been reading lately, I could probably produce some fantastic art from the inside of a very large paper bag, as long as it had a pinhole on one side and pretty bright light outside. All I’d have to do is trace the image projected by this primitive camera obscura. According to a controversial theory, this technique—or something very much like it—gave some world-renowned artists a little help as far back as 1420. Then again…maybe not. Getting to the bottom of this puzzle has been the consuming passion of quite a few artists, historians, and optical engineers over the past several years.

Without a Trace
Tracing over a projected image is a straightforward notion, but if you’ve ever tried it (as I have) you probably discovered that getting good results is not as easy as it sounds. The easy part is getting the proportions right. But lots of things in any image lack well-defined borders, and trying to make sense of textures and the effects of light and shadow while tracing something is quite a complex undertaking. If, instead of tracing, I were painting, the challenge would become even greater, as I’d have to carefully match gradations in color—and as soon as I applied a dark paint to the light surface, the image in that area would virtually disappear. All that to say: projection or no projection, producing a convincingly realistic drawing or painting takes a lot of skill and practice. So if it turned out that one of the great masters from centuries ago really did pull this off, I’d be no less impressed by the final product—and more impressed by the artist’s cleverness. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Milgram Obedience Experiments

Just following orders

As a teenager, I never thought of myself as someone who had a problem with authority. I may not have liked what I was being told to do, and I may have complained, but it was not in my nature to say no. I had my first crisis of authority when I was 16. I was learning to drive, and I’d already failed my driving test—twice. (The first time, I couldn’t parallel park and I ran into a cone; the second time, I didn’t come to a complete stop at a stop sign.) After several more weeks of practicing and diligently studying the driver’s manual, I was taking my third and final test. If I failed that, I’d have to apply for a learner’s permit all over again and endure embarrassing months of being the only person my age without a license. So the pressure was on. With the examiner, a police officer, in the passenger’s seat and sweat on my brow, I carefully completed the entire course—and I thought I did well.

At the very end, the officer told me to pull over at a certain spot and park the car. And I had a moment of complete panic: the spot he’d indicated was just a few feet from a stop sign, and I remembered from the driver’s manual that it was illegal to park so close. Was this one last test? If I obeyed, I thought, I could be failed for breaking the law. So I hesitated and said, “Isn’t that too close to the stop sign?” The officer became furious and started berating me for my arrogance, reminding me that the manual said, “…unless directed otherwise by a uniformed officer of the law.” Tugging at his sleeve, he ranted, “What does this look like, my pajamas?” He went on and on until I was about ready to shrivel up and die, but in the end, he passed me anyway. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

InterPlay

Getting grown-ups back into their bodies

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

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

•••••

From the archives…

Parkour

Turning a city into an obstacle course

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

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

•••••

From the archives…

Operation Migration

Follow that airplane!

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

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

•••••

From the archives…

Portmanteau

When words intertwingle

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

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

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

•••••

From the archives…

Passenger Pigeons

The great American extinction

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

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

•••••

From the archives…

Leonardo's Robots

Renaissance man meets mechanical man

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The 1715 Spanish Plate Fleet

Disaster on the Treasure Coast

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Autogyro

Taking the proto-helicopter for a spin

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Sedna's Moon

Mysteries of the solar system’s most distant member

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Pont d'Avignon

Miracle bridge to nowhere

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Story of Toilet Paper

What goes around, comes around

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Wet Collodion Process

Developing a better negative

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Biodegradable Plastic

The quest for impermanence

[Article Continues…]

•••••

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