From the archives…

Raclette

The cheese that eats like a meal

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

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

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From the archives…

The PB&J Campaign

The environmental impact of lunch

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

When I was younger and didn’t have a lot of money to spend on lunches outside the office, I often brought a bag lunch to work which usually (although not always) featured a peanut butter sandwich. My coworkers teased me about this habit, chalking it up to frugal necessity, but it really was a matter of preference. I really liked, maybe even loved, peanut butter sandwiches, and as a vegetarian at the time, it was also an easy way to get some protein into my diet.

According to a new online initiative called the PB&J Campaign (referring to peanut butter and jelly, for those uninitiated into this North American tradition), it turns out I was not only saving money and my health, but the environment as well. Through their Web site at www.pbjcampaign.org, the organizers behind the campaign lay out the facts about how incorporating this humble treat into your lunch plans can be a simple way to help the planet. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Coffee Decaffeination Processes

Less buzz for your buck

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

Every day it seems medical researchers come out with a new study about coffee, how it is extremely unhealthy for you and/or full of amazing benefits. The focus of most of these studies is more particularly about the effects of caffeine on human health, caffeine being coffee’s most potent element. As caffeine is a stimulant, it can produce both positive and negative effects. It can wake you up in the morning, but it can also lead to sleeplessness, a racing heartbeat, and anxiety.

It is therefore no surprise that many people have decided to cut caffeine out of their diets. What I sometimes find surprising is how many people still opt to drink coffee, just without the caffeine. I have grown to like the taste of coffee, but to me the main purpose of drinking it is to get an extra jolt of energy. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Lucid Dreams

Waking up to the reality of dreaming

I dream that I am standing in a very unfamiliar building. Something about the strangeness of my surroundings leads me to wonder if I might not be dreaming. I decide to perform a little experiment to determine whether it really is a dream or not. There is a short flight of stairs ahead of me going down to a lower level. I know that if I jump off the top step and find I can fly, it must be a dream, whereas if land normally, it isn’t. So I jump, and sure enough, I float down to the next level. “Cool!” I think, “I am dreaming—that must mean I can do anything I want!” But I can’t decide what to do next. I try walking through some people but that doesn’t work, and after a few minutes I slip back into the unconscious world of regular dreams. Nevertheless, the experience is fascinating and exhilarating. Being able to consciously influence the course of my dream is a wonderfully novel sensation.

A lucid dream is simply one in which you realize that you are dreaming. The dream I just described happened about a year ago—and it happened spontaneously, without any effort or intention on my part. Since then, I’ve read about and practiced a variety of methods for inducing lucid dreams deliberately. Although I can’t yet dream lucidly on command, my success rate has gradually improved. For me, this is a purely recreational activity, but for centuries lucid dreaming, in one form or another, has been practiced with great seriousness in certain religious and philosophical traditions. Tibetan Buddhism, in particular, has an ancient discipline of meditative techniques designed to encourage not just lucid dreaming, but a continuously unbroken state of consciousness, while sleeping and awake. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Iris Scans

A new angle on photo identification

How many passwords do you have? For the average computer user, the number can range from dozens to hundreds. It seems like every time I turn around another Web site asks me to come up with a password; I need them to get access to bank accounts, utilities, discussion boards, travel reservations, and countless other services. Security experts tell us that you should never use the same password twice, that passwords should never contain words found in a dictionary, and that they should include combinations of upper- and lowercase letters, numbers, and special characters such as punctuation. Wow. I try to follow this advice for the most part, but the more secure and diverse I make my passwords, the harder they are to remember. A forgotten password is useless, and if I write it down, I take a risk that someone will find it. As long as someone can guess or steal my passwords, my money and important data are vulnerable. The same goes for PINs used to get money from ATMs or codes used to unlock doors and gates. A few months ago I needed to make a deposit into a bank account I rarely use, and although I had my card with me, I had forgotten my PIN and had to return home to look it up on the notice my bank sent me way back when. My money was safe, all right—even from me!

The basic question a password attempts to answer is: Are you who you claim to be? I can walk up to a bank teller with a name and account number, but if the teller doesn’t know me personally, he has to have some way to confirm my identity. Photo ID and signatures are often used for this purpose—on drivers’ licenses, passports, credit cards, and checks. But photos and signatures are relatively easy to forge, and they do little good when conducting business over the Web. This is why, increasingly, companies and governments are turning to biometric data—measurements of some aspect of the body—to solve problems of identification and authentication. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Eye Language

Look what you’re saying

A while back, someone remarked in passing that a mutual friend had “such beautiful blue eyes.” I was surprised—and a bit embarrassed—to realize that in all the years I’d known the woman in question, I had never noticed the color of her eyes. In North America, social convention dictates that we look someone directly in the eye while conversing, so failing to register my friend’s eye color implied that my communication skills were faulty too. But if I can be forgiven for ignoring the iris, the pupil is something that clearly deserves a great deal of attention, because it can tell us much more than the words someone speaks.

Size Matters
Would you believe that medical science has come up with two different words that mean “the measurement of pupil diameter”? It’s true. The general term, pupillometry, refers to any pupil measurement—usually performed using infrared cameras or sensors, because visible light would cause the pupils to contract and throw off the readings. A more specific term, pupillometrics, refers to the evaluation of one’s pupil size as an indicator of interest or emotion. University of Chicago biopsychologist Eckhard Hess coined the term in 1975. Hess discovered that when someone looks at something that causes positive feelings (or even just sparks interest), the pupils dilate—whereas the pupils contract when the person looks at unpleasant or uninteresting things. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Brain Machines

Blinking your way to relaxation

I love gadgets. A quick glance around my office, living room, or Web site would probably make that pretty clear. In particular, I seem to have the gene that favors small, battery-powered boxes with blinking lights—my iPod, PowerBook, cell phone, digital camera, and PDA, for example, all meet that general description. Even so, I only buy gadgets that I think will actually perform a useful activity or make my life better in some way. Tempted as I was by that watch with the built-in Global Positioning System receiver or the current selection of electronic book readers, I had to admit that these things would not in fact be valuable as part of my lifestyle. It was therefore with a mixture of gadget-crazed glee and circumspect puzzlement that I first looked at a device sometimes known as a “brain machine” a number of years ago at a Sharper Image store.

Relaxation in a Box
That it was a small box containing batteries and blinking lights was enough to induce me to pick it up; it also had cables running to a set of headphones and what appeared to be sunglasses with a bunch of LEDs mounted on the inside. The marketing propaganda said that the device was supposed to promote relaxation and “synchronize” one’s brain waves, whatever that meant. Out of idle curiosity I put the apparatus on and pressed the button. The LEDs on the glasses started blinking and synthesized sounds poured out of the headphones. I only used the device for a minute or so, but I was almost immediately struck by the sensation that I was somehow moving into an altered state of consciousness. To be quite honest, it was a bit freaky—fascinating, sure, but not something I really cared to experience standing in the middle of a store. I thought it would be well worth about US$50 to take home and experiment with, but the cost was quite a few times that, and I really couldn’t bring myself to spend hundreds of dollars on a box that made sunglasses light up. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Freecycling

Finding your stuff a new home, painlessly

In a couple of months, Morgen and I are going to be moving. Naturally, we’ve got a million details to worry about, but one of the biggest is what to do with all our stuff. The usual answer is simply to pile it all in a moving van and unload it at the next place—or, if your new home is too small, put the extra stuff in storage. We’ve done this numerous times before, and frankly, we’re tired of moving so much stuff around. Sure, we’ll take some things, sell some things, and store some things, but there’ll still be a lot left over that we don’t know what to do with. So this time we’re going to try something different: freecycling, or free recycling.

As middle-class Americans go, we’re not very good consumers. We rarely buy things we don’t actually need, and we haven’t accumulated anywhere near the volume of possessions that most of our peers have. But still: we have too much stuff. Stuff that’s perfectly good, but which we simply no longer need. Random small appliances and electronic gadgets. Lots of books we’ve read and won’t read again. Years worth of National Geographic magazine. A tire pump. Tools. Plastic coat hangers. The list goes on. These kinds of things would be too much bother to sell on eBay, and they’d make little or no money at a garage sale. But we don’t want to simply throw them away, either, because they could be useful to someone. But who needs these things? Freecycling, the latest fad in ownership transfer, has the answer. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Bionic Eyes

Seeing is believing

As a kid in the mid-’70s, one of my favorite TV shows was The Six Million Dollar Man. When astronaut and test pilot Steve Austin was critically injured in a plane crash, government scientists decided to replace his damaged body parts with electromechanical equivalents, making him the first bionic (or cybernetic) human. The cost for two new legs, a right arm, and a left eye turned out to be $6 million, but for that price Steve Austin was able not merely to walk again, but to outrun cars, lift enormous weights, and see faraway objects with a built-in zoom lens.

The decisive statement, which we heard as a voiceover at the beginning of each week’s episode, was, “We can rebuild him. We have the technology.” Even though I knew the show was science fiction, I assumed we really did have the technology back then, or at least something close to it—and that the cost was the main reason people weren’t being fitted with bionic limbs on a regular basis. Of course, cost aside, we didn’t then, and still don’t, have the ability to come anywhere near that sort of body-part replacement. Medical science has made great advances in the development of prosthetic limbs, and perhaps someday, decades from now, amputees will be able to receive something like Steve Austin’s bionic arms and legs—though I wouldn’t count on superhuman strength and speed. But the eye…that’s another story. Even today, restoring sight to the blind seems like the province of myth and science fiction. In many ways, it’s a much harder problem to solve than creating an artificial arm or leg, but researchers are making significant progress, and the reality of a bionic eye may not be so far-fetched after all. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Superautomatic Coffee Machines

The lazy way to make a perfect cup of coffee

There are those who believe half the pleasure of a great cup of coffee comes from the ritual of making it. The details of the ritual vary from person to person and place to place, but the desired effect is the same: a perfect cup of hot, rich, fresh coffee. “Perfect,” of course, is quite subjective. Among people who take coffee very seriously, there is a great deal of disagreement as to what types of bean, roast, and grind make the best coffee, how concentrated the grounds should be, whether the coffee should be infused into the water by dripping, steeping, or steaming, and many other details. Regardless of the precise outcome, however, coffee purists will insist that if you want coffee done right, you must make it by hand, with a great deal of care and attention to detail.

I certainly count myself among those who cherish a perfect cup of coffee. And yet, I’ve never been much for ritual. All things being equal, I’d prefer to have my coffee with as little effort as possible. I was delighted to discover that technology allows me to have my café and drink it too, thanks to a breed of coffee maker known as a superautomatic. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Dream Groups

Intramural introspection

I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Unbeknownst to most of my friends and family, I’m really an action hero. Several times each month, I go on dangerous assignments to exotic locations, where I narrowly escape death, rescue the hostages, recover the stolen chip, round up the bad guys, and generally keep civilization safe from evil. Admirers call me “Indiana Joe.” Of course, it’s no big deal, thanks to my super powers that enable me to dodge bullets, read minds, and fly off into the sunset. When I return from one of my adventures, I can almost hear the fanfare…no, wait, that’s my alarm clock. Sometimes I awake from one of my dreams uncertain of whether it really happened or not, and with a nagging sense that a vital piece of information has been lost—that the dream was trying to tell me something important. When I need to get to the bottom of a dream, I take it to Dreams Group, a small circle of friends that meets monthly for a unique kind of dream analysis.

The Woman of My Dreams
I first became aware of dream groups a number of years ago, when someone made an announcement after a church service that such a group was going to form. At first, I wasn’t even sure what they meant by “dreams”—I thought it might have been dreams in the sense of aspirations, rather than the visions that occur while we sleep. Either way, I had plenty to work with, but I had no idea what I’d be getting myself into if I joined. A week later, the group’s leader asked all interested parties to gather for more information. I was still wavering when I saw a very attractive young woman join the group. At that point I immediately determined that I was interested. (I thought the group might be worthwhile too.) [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Lichens

A tale of two organisms

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

There are some things in the natural world I tend to take for granted, but that reveal true surprises when I look at them more closely. Such is the case with lichens. I’ve known about lichens since childhood, but it turns out I never really knew anything about them at all. I always assumed they were like mosses, vegetable-like things that grew on the ground, rocks, and trees. In fact, lichens are not even one organism; they are a delicate balance of fungi and algae (and in some cases, cyanobacteria) that coexist in the form of what we see as a lichen growth.

More than this astonishing fact, a study of lichens reveals many other surprises, including examples of their extreme hardiness, the myriad of uses to which they are often put, and the fascination they once inspired in a beloved literary figure. I’ve learned that there is much more to lichens than meets the eye. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Paris Catacombs

Man-made calcium deposits

Paris is a shockingly large city. There are many fine vantage points from which to view the panorama, including the Montparnasse Tower, Sacré Coeur, the Eiffel Tower, or the bell towers of Notre Dame. I’m sure everyone who looks out over the vast expanse of Paris has a different impression; mine has been, overwhelmingly, “Gosh, that’s a lot of limestone.” With very few exceptions, the buildings of Paris are uniformly beige, limestone being the preferred building material—and not just for the buildings either, but for bridges, sidewalks, and monuments. As far as the eye can see in every direction, the earth is covered with stone. A splash of green, like a park, or gray, like the Seine, seems strangely out of place. All that stone had to come from somewhere, but it never occurs to most people to wonder where that might have been. Most of it was quarried locally, and what’s particularly interesting about this is that the empty spaces left when the limestone was removed—mind-bogglingly huge volumes of space—are largely still vacant, hidden beneath the city streets.

The Other French Empire
On visits to France, I’ve spent a good bit of time underground in Paris. There have been countless trips on the Paris Métro, of course, and last spring I spent an enjoyable afternoon exploring the public portion of the vast Paris sewer system, not to mention visiting the archeological crypts near Notre Dame. But these are merely the tip of the iceberg. Underneath Paris the real action—so to speak—is in the hundreds of kilometers of abandoned limestone quarries, part of which have been turned into a depository for the bones of millions of former citizens. As with all the underground attractions in Paris, only a portion of the catacombs is officially open to the public; this visitor-friendly section is known as the Denfert-Rochereau Ossuary, or simply the Catacombs. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Oil from Garbage

Modern-day alchemy

Well, I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The good news is that there may be an elegant solution on the horizon to the gigantic problem of garbage—and not just the kind that gets dumped in landfills, but sewage, too, along with agricultural wastes, used tires, and just about everything else. More good news: we might get to reduce dependence on foreign oil and pay less for gasoline in the process. The bad news? Forget about those electric cars or increased fuel efficiency; abandon hope of seeing your city skyline again—this solution, if it works, will keep internal combustion engines running forever.

What many investors are hoping will be the Next Big Thing is a technology called the thermal depolymerization process, or TDP for short. This patented process is being developed by Changing World Technologies of West Hempstead, New York, with its first full-scale plant already in operation in Carthage, Missouri. The idea behind TDP is not new—in fact, it’s millions of years old. Take organic matter, subject it to heat and pressure, and eventually you get oil. Of course in nature, “eventually” is usually an inconvenient number of millennia; TDP shortens that time to hours, if you can believe that. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

San Francisco's Terra Infirma

Ship to shore

Several months ago I was walking down the street in San Francisco when I noticed a large brass plaque embedded in the sidewalk. It said that the spot on which I was standing was once part of the shoreline of the San Francisco Bay. I turned and looked in the direction of the Bay, from which I was now separated by several blocks and quite a few very large buildings. Up until that time, it had never occurred to me to doubt Jefferson Starship’s claim, “We built this city on rock and roll.” The band was from San Francisco, after all, and they should know. But thinking about this area’s significant seismic activity, I started to wonder what all these buildings were really sitting on, if not solid ground.

The trivial answer, of course, is that the ground is made up of landfill. By itself, that’s nothing unusual—especially around here. Since the mid-1800s, the San Francisco Bay as a whole has lost 40% of its area to landfill. But in the northeast corner of San Francisco, the large, semicircular slice of land that was once called Yerba Buena Cove has a rather unusual makeup: it’s composed partly of the remains of hundreds of old ships. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Raclette

The cheese that eats like a meal

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

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

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From the archives…

The PB&J Campaign

The environmental impact of lunch

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

When I was younger and didn’t have a lot of money to spend on lunches outside the office, I often brought a bag lunch to work which usually (although not always) featured a peanut butter sandwich. My coworkers teased me about this habit, chalking it up to frugal necessity, but it really was a matter of preference. I really liked, maybe even loved, peanut butter sandwiches, and as a vegetarian at the time, it was also an easy way to get some protein into my diet.

According to a new online initiative called the PB&J Campaign (referring to peanut butter and jelly, for those uninitiated into this North American tradition), it turns out I was not only saving money and my health, but the environment as well. Through their Web site at www.pbjcampaign.org, the organizers behind the campaign lay out the facts about how incorporating this humble treat into your lunch plans can be a simple way to help the planet. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Coffee Decaffeination Processes

Less buzz for your buck

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

Every day it seems medical researchers come out with a new study about coffee, how it is extremely unhealthy for you and/or full of amazing benefits. The focus of most of these studies is more particularly about the effects of caffeine on human health, caffeine being coffee’s most potent element. As caffeine is a stimulant, it can produce both positive and negative effects. It can wake you up in the morning, but it can also lead to sleeplessness, a racing heartbeat, and anxiety.

It is therefore no surprise that many people have decided to cut caffeine out of their diets. What I sometimes find surprising is how many people still opt to drink coffee, just without the caffeine. I have grown to like the taste of coffee, but to me the main purpose of drinking it is to get an extra jolt of energy. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Lucid Dreams

Waking up to the reality of dreaming

I dream that I am standing in a very unfamiliar building. Something about the strangeness of my surroundings leads me to wonder if I might not be dreaming. I decide to perform a little experiment to determine whether it really is a dream or not. There is a short flight of stairs ahead of me going down to a lower level. I know that if I jump off the top step and find I can fly, it must be a dream, whereas if land normally, it isn’t. So I jump, and sure enough, I float down to the next level. “Cool!” I think, “I am dreaming—that must mean I can do anything I want!” But I can’t decide what to do next. I try walking through some people but that doesn’t work, and after a few minutes I slip back into the unconscious world of regular dreams. Nevertheless, the experience is fascinating and exhilarating. Being able to consciously influence the course of my dream is a wonderfully novel sensation.

A lucid dream is simply one in which you realize that you are dreaming. The dream I just described happened about a year ago—and it happened spontaneously, without any effort or intention on my part. Since then, I’ve read about and practiced a variety of methods for inducing lucid dreams deliberately. Although I can’t yet dream lucidly on command, my success rate has gradually improved. For me, this is a purely recreational activity, but for centuries lucid dreaming, in one form or another, has been practiced with great seriousness in certain religious and philosophical traditions. Tibetan Buddhism, in particular, has an ancient discipline of meditative techniques designed to encourage not just lucid dreaming, but a continuously unbroken state of consciousness, while sleeping and awake. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Iris Scans

A new angle on photo identification

How many passwords do you have? For the average computer user, the number can range from dozens to hundreds. It seems like every time I turn around another Web site asks me to come up with a password; I need them to get access to bank accounts, utilities, discussion boards, travel reservations, and countless other services. Security experts tell us that you should never use the same password twice, that passwords should never contain words found in a dictionary, and that they should include combinations of upper- and lowercase letters, numbers, and special characters such as punctuation. Wow. I try to follow this advice for the most part, but the more secure and diverse I make my passwords, the harder they are to remember. A forgotten password is useless, and if I write it down, I take a risk that someone will find it. As long as someone can guess or steal my passwords, my money and important data are vulnerable. The same goes for PINs used to get money from ATMs or codes used to unlock doors and gates. A few months ago I needed to make a deposit into a bank account I rarely use, and although I had my card with me, I had forgotten my PIN and had to return home to look it up on the notice my bank sent me way back when. My money was safe, all right—even from me!

The basic question a password attempts to answer is: Are you who you claim to be? I can walk up to a bank teller with a name and account number, but if the teller doesn’t know me personally, he has to have some way to confirm my identity. Photo ID and signatures are often used for this purpose—on drivers’ licenses, passports, credit cards, and checks. But photos and signatures are relatively easy to forge, and they do little good when conducting business over the Web. This is why, increasingly, companies and governments are turning to biometric data—measurements of some aspect of the body—to solve problems of identification and authentication. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Eye Language

Look what you’re saying

A while back, someone remarked in passing that a mutual friend had “such beautiful blue eyes.” I was surprised—and a bit embarrassed—to realize that in all the years I’d known the woman in question, I had never noticed the color of her eyes. In North America, social convention dictates that we look someone directly in the eye while conversing, so failing to register my friend’s eye color implied that my communication skills were faulty too. But if I can be forgiven for ignoring the iris, the pupil is something that clearly deserves a great deal of attention, because it can tell us much more than the words someone speaks.

Size Matters
Would you believe that medical science has come up with two different words that mean “the measurement of pupil diameter”? It’s true. The general term, pupillometry, refers to any pupil measurement—usually performed using infrared cameras or sensors, because visible light would cause the pupils to contract and throw off the readings. A more specific term, pupillometrics, refers to the evaluation of one’s pupil size as an indicator of interest or emotion. University of Chicago biopsychologist Eckhard Hess coined the term in 1975. Hess discovered that when someone looks at something that causes positive feelings (or even just sparks interest), the pupils dilate—whereas the pupils contract when the person looks at unpleasant or uninteresting things. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Brain Machines

Blinking your way to relaxation

I love gadgets. A quick glance around my office, living room, or Web site would probably make that pretty clear. In particular, I seem to have the gene that favors small, battery-powered boxes with blinking lights—my iPod, PowerBook, cell phone, digital camera, and PDA, for example, all meet that general description. Even so, I only buy gadgets that I think will actually perform a useful activity or make my life better in some way. Tempted as I was by that watch with the built-in Global Positioning System receiver or the current selection of electronic book readers, I had to admit that these things would not in fact be valuable as part of my lifestyle. It was therefore with a mixture of gadget-crazed glee and circumspect puzzlement that I first looked at a device sometimes known as a “brain machine” a number of years ago at a Sharper Image store.

Relaxation in a Box
That it was a small box containing batteries and blinking lights was enough to induce me to pick it up; it also had cables running to a set of headphones and what appeared to be sunglasses with a bunch of LEDs mounted on the inside. The marketing propaganda said that the device was supposed to promote relaxation and “synchronize” one’s brain waves, whatever that meant. Out of idle curiosity I put the apparatus on and pressed the button. The LEDs on the glasses started blinking and synthesized sounds poured out of the headphones. I only used the device for a minute or so, but I was almost immediately struck by the sensation that I was somehow moving into an altered state of consciousness. To be quite honest, it was a bit freaky—fascinating, sure, but not something I really cared to experience standing in the middle of a store. I thought it would be well worth about US$50 to take home and experiment with, but the cost was quite a few times that, and I really couldn’t bring myself to spend hundreds of dollars on a box that made sunglasses light up. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Freecycling

Finding your stuff a new home, painlessly

In a couple of months, Morgen and I are going to be moving. Naturally, we’ve got a million details to worry about, but one of the biggest is what to do with all our stuff. The usual answer is simply to pile it all in a moving van and unload it at the next place—or, if your new home is too small, put the extra stuff in storage. We’ve done this numerous times before, and frankly, we’re tired of moving so much stuff around. Sure, we’ll take some things, sell some things, and store some things, but there’ll still be a lot left over that we don’t know what to do with. So this time we’re going to try something different: freecycling, or free recycling.

As middle-class Americans go, we’re not very good consumers. We rarely buy things we don’t actually need, and we haven’t accumulated anywhere near the volume of possessions that most of our peers have. But still: we have too much stuff. Stuff that’s perfectly good, but which we simply no longer need. Random small appliances and electronic gadgets. Lots of books we’ve read and won’t read again. Years worth of National Geographic magazine. A tire pump. Tools. Plastic coat hangers. The list goes on. These kinds of things would be too much bother to sell on eBay, and they’d make little or no money at a garage sale. But we don’t want to simply throw them away, either, because they could be useful to someone. But who needs these things? Freecycling, the latest fad in ownership transfer, has the answer. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Bionic Eyes

Seeing is believing

As a kid in the mid-’70s, one of my favorite TV shows was The Six Million Dollar Man. When astronaut and test pilot Steve Austin was critically injured in a plane crash, government scientists decided to replace his damaged body parts with electromechanical equivalents, making him the first bionic (or cybernetic) human. The cost for two new legs, a right arm, and a left eye turned out to be $6 million, but for that price Steve Austin was able not merely to walk again, but to outrun cars, lift enormous weights, and see faraway objects with a built-in zoom lens.

The decisive statement, which we heard as a voiceover at the beginning of each week’s episode, was, “We can rebuild him. We have the technology.” Even though I knew the show was science fiction, I assumed we really did have the technology back then, or at least something close to it—and that the cost was the main reason people weren’t being fitted with bionic limbs on a regular basis. Of course, cost aside, we didn’t then, and still don’t, have the ability to come anywhere near that sort of body-part replacement. Medical science has made great advances in the development of prosthetic limbs, and perhaps someday, decades from now, amputees will be able to receive something like Steve Austin’s bionic arms and legs—though I wouldn’t count on superhuman strength and speed. But the eye…that’s another story. Even today, restoring sight to the blind seems like the province of myth and science fiction. In many ways, it’s a much harder problem to solve than creating an artificial arm or leg, but researchers are making significant progress, and the reality of a bionic eye may not be so far-fetched after all. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Superautomatic Coffee Machines

The lazy way to make a perfect cup of coffee

There are those who believe half the pleasure of a great cup of coffee comes from the ritual of making it. The details of the ritual vary from person to person and place to place, but the desired effect is the same: a perfect cup of hot, rich, fresh coffee. “Perfect,” of course, is quite subjective. Among people who take coffee very seriously, there is a great deal of disagreement as to what types of bean, roast, and grind make the best coffee, how concentrated the grounds should be, whether the coffee should be infused into the water by dripping, steeping, or steaming, and many other details. Regardless of the precise outcome, however, coffee purists will insist that if you want coffee done right, you must make it by hand, with a great deal of care and attention to detail.

I certainly count myself among those who cherish a perfect cup of coffee. And yet, I’ve never been much for ritual. All things being equal, I’d prefer to have my coffee with as little effort as possible. I was delighted to discover that technology allows me to have my café and drink it too, thanks to a breed of coffee maker known as a superautomatic. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Dream Groups

Intramural introspection

I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Unbeknownst to most of my friends and family, I’m really an action hero. Several times each month, I go on dangerous assignments to exotic locations, where I narrowly escape death, rescue the hostages, recover the stolen chip, round up the bad guys, and generally keep civilization safe from evil. Admirers call me “Indiana Joe.” Of course, it’s no big deal, thanks to my super powers that enable me to dodge bullets, read minds, and fly off into the sunset. When I return from one of my adventures, I can almost hear the fanfare…no, wait, that’s my alarm clock. Sometimes I awake from one of my dreams uncertain of whether it really happened or not, and with a nagging sense that a vital piece of information has been lost—that the dream was trying to tell me something important. When I need to get to the bottom of a dream, I take it to Dreams Group, a small circle of friends that meets monthly for a unique kind of dream analysis.

The Woman of My Dreams
I first became aware of dream groups a number of years ago, when someone made an announcement after a church service that such a group was going to form. At first, I wasn’t even sure what they meant by “dreams”—I thought it might have been dreams in the sense of aspirations, rather than the visions that occur while we sleep. Either way, I had plenty to work with, but I had no idea what I’d be getting myself into if I joined. A week later, the group’s leader asked all interested parties to gather for more information. I was still wavering when I saw a very attractive young woman join the group. At that point I immediately determined that I was interested. (I thought the group might be worthwhile too.) [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Lichens

A tale of two organisms

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

There are some things in the natural world I tend to take for granted, but that reveal true surprises when I look at them more closely. Such is the case with lichens. I’ve known about lichens since childhood, but it turns out I never really knew anything about them at all. I always assumed they were like mosses, vegetable-like things that grew on the ground, rocks, and trees. In fact, lichens are not even one organism; they are a delicate balance of fungi and algae (and in some cases, cyanobacteria) that coexist in the form of what we see as a lichen growth.

More than this astonishing fact, a study of lichens reveals many other surprises, including examples of their extreme hardiness, the myriad of uses to which they are often put, and the fascination they once inspired in a beloved literary figure. I’ve learned that there is much more to lichens than meets the eye. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Paris Catacombs

Man-made calcium deposits

Paris is a shockingly large city. There are many fine vantage points from which to view the panorama, including the Montparnasse Tower, Sacré Coeur, the Eiffel Tower, or the bell towers of Notre Dame. I’m sure everyone who looks out over the vast expanse of Paris has a different impression; mine has been, overwhelmingly, “Gosh, that’s a lot of limestone.” With very few exceptions, the buildings of Paris are uniformly beige, limestone being the preferred building material—and not just for the buildings either, but for bridges, sidewalks, and monuments. As far as the eye can see in every direction, the earth is covered with stone. A splash of green, like a park, or gray, like the Seine, seems strangely out of place. All that stone had to come from somewhere, but it never occurs to most people to wonder where that might have been. Most of it was quarried locally, and what’s particularly interesting about this is that the empty spaces left when the limestone was removed—mind-bogglingly huge volumes of space—are largely still vacant, hidden beneath the city streets.

The Other French Empire
On visits to France, I’ve spent a good bit of time underground in Paris. There have been countless trips on the Paris Métro, of course, and last spring I spent an enjoyable afternoon exploring the public portion of the vast Paris sewer system, not to mention visiting the archeological crypts near Notre Dame. But these are merely the tip of the iceberg. Underneath Paris the real action—so to speak—is in the hundreds of kilometers of abandoned limestone quarries, part of which have been turned into a depository for the bones of millions of former citizens. As with all the underground attractions in Paris, only a portion of the catacombs is officially open to the public; this visitor-friendly section is known as the Denfert-Rochereau Ossuary, or simply the Catacombs. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Oil from Garbage

Modern-day alchemy

Well, I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The good news is that there may be an elegant solution on the horizon to the gigantic problem of garbage—and not just the kind that gets dumped in landfills, but sewage, too, along with agricultural wastes, used tires, and just about everything else. More good news: we might get to reduce dependence on foreign oil and pay less for gasoline in the process. The bad news? Forget about those electric cars or increased fuel efficiency; abandon hope of seeing your city skyline again—this solution, if it works, will keep internal combustion engines running forever.

What many investors are hoping will be the Next Big Thing is a technology called the thermal depolymerization process, or TDP for short. This patented process is being developed by Changing World Technologies of West Hempstead, New York, with its first full-scale plant already in operation in Carthage, Missouri. The idea behind TDP is not new—in fact, it’s millions of years old. Take organic matter, subject it to heat and pressure, and eventually you get oil. Of course in nature, “eventually” is usually an inconvenient number of millennia; TDP shortens that time to hours, if you can believe that. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

San Francisco's Terra Infirma

Ship to shore

Several months ago I was walking down the street in San Francisco when I noticed a large brass plaque embedded in the sidewalk. It said that the spot on which I was standing was once part of the shoreline of the San Francisco Bay. I turned and looked in the direction of the Bay, from which I was now separated by several blocks and quite a few very large buildings. Up until that time, it had never occurred to me to doubt Jefferson Starship’s claim, “We built this city on rock and roll.” The band was from San Francisco, after all, and they should know. But thinking about this area’s significant seismic activity, I started to wonder what all these buildings were really sitting on, if not solid ground.

The trivial answer, of course, is that the ground is made up of landfill. By itself, that’s nothing unusual—especially around here. Since the mid-1800s, the San Francisco Bay as a whole has lost 40% of its area to landfill. But in the northeast corner of San Francisco, the large, semicircular slice of land that was once called Yerba Buena Cove has a rather unusual makeup: it’s composed partly of the remains of hundreds of old ships. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Raclette

The cheese that eats like a meal

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

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

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From the archives…

The PB&J Campaign

The environmental impact of lunch

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

When I was younger and didn’t have a lot of money to spend on lunches outside the office, I often brought a bag lunch to work which usually (although not always) featured a peanut butter sandwich. My coworkers teased me about this habit, chalking it up to frugal necessity, but it really was a matter of preference. I really liked, maybe even loved, peanut butter sandwiches, and as a vegetarian at the time, it was also an easy way to get some protein into my diet.

According to a new online initiative called the PB&J Campaign (referring to peanut butter and jelly, for those uninitiated into this North American tradition), it turns out I was not only saving money and my health, but the environment as well. Through their Web site at www.pbjcampaign.org, the organizers behind the campaign lay out the facts about how incorporating this humble treat into your lunch plans can be a simple way to help the planet. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Coffee Decaffeination Processes

Less buzz for your buck

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

Every day it seems medical researchers come out with a new study about coffee, how it is extremely unhealthy for you and/or full of amazing benefits. The focus of most of these studies is more particularly about the effects of caffeine on human health, caffeine being coffee’s most potent element. As caffeine is a stimulant, it can produce both positive and negative effects. It can wake you up in the morning, but it can also lead to sleeplessness, a racing heartbeat, and anxiety.

It is therefore no surprise that many people have decided to cut caffeine out of their diets. What I sometimes find surprising is how many people still opt to drink coffee, just without the caffeine. I have grown to like the taste of coffee, but to me the main purpose of drinking it is to get an extra jolt of energy. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Lucid Dreams

Waking up to the reality of dreaming

I dream that I am standing in a very unfamiliar building. Something about the strangeness of my surroundings leads me to wonder if I might not be dreaming. I decide to perform a little experiment to determine whether it really is a dream or not. There is a short flight of stairs ahead of me going down to a lower level. I know that if I jump off the top step and find I can fly, it must be a dream, whereas if land normally, it isn’t. So I jump, and sure enough, I float down to the next level. “Cool!” I think, “I am dreaming—that must mean I can do anything I want!” But I can’t decide what to do next. I try walking through some people but that doesn’t work, and after a few minutes I slip back into the unconscious world of regular dreams. Nevertheless, the experience is fascinating and exhilarating. Being able to consciously influence the course of my dream is a wonderfully novel sensation.

A lucid dream is simply one in which you realize that you are dreaming. The dream I just described happened about a year ago—and it happened spontaneously, without any effort or intention on my part. Since then, I’ve read about and practiced a variety of methods for inducing lucid dreams deliberately. Although I can’t yet dream lucidly on command, my success rate has gradually improved. For me, this is a purely recreational activity, but for centuries lucid dreaming, in one form or another, has been practiced with great seriousness in certain religious and philosophical traditions. Tibetan Buddhism, in particular, has an ancient discipline of meditative techniques designed to encourage not just lucid dreaming, but a continuously unbroken state of consciousness, while sleeping and awake. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Iris Scans

A new angle on photo identification

How many passwords do you have? For the average computer user, the number can range from dozens to hundreds. It seems like every time I turn around another Web site asks me to come up with a password; I need them to get access to bank accounts, utilities, discussion boards, travel reservations, and countless other services. Security experts tell us that you should never use the same password twice, that passwords should never contain words found in a dictionary, and that they should include combinations of upper- and lowercase letters, numbers, and special characters such as punctuation. Wow. I try to follow this advice for the most part, but the more secure and diverse I make my passwords, the harder they are to remember. A forgotten password is useless, and if I write it down, I take a risk that someone will find it. As long as someone can guess or steal my passwords, my money and important data are vulnerable. The same goes for PINs used to get money from ATMs or codes used to unlock doors and gates. A few months ago I needed to make a deposit into a bank account I rarely use, and although I had my card with me, I had forgotten my PIN and had to return home to look it up on the notice my bank sent me way back when. My money was safe, all right—even from me!

The basic question a password attempts to answer is: Are you who you claim to be? I can walk up to a bank teller with a name and account number, but if the teller doesn’t know me personally, he has to have some way to confirm my identity. Photo ID and signatures are often used for this purpose—on drivers’ licenses, passports, credit cards, and checks. But photos and signatures are relatively easy to forge, and they do little good when conducting business over the Web. This is why, increasingly, companies and governments are turning to biometric data—measurements of some aspect of the body—to solve problems of identification and authentication. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Eye Language

Look what you’re saying

A while back, someone remarked in passing that a mutual friend had “such beautiful blue eyes.” I was surprised—and a bit embarrassed—to realize that in all the years I’d known the woman in question, I had never noticed the color of her eyes. In North America, social convention dictates that we look someone directly in the eye while conversing, so failing to register my friend’s eye color implied that my communication skills were faulty too. But if I can be forgiven for ignoring the iris, the pupil is something that clearly deserves a great deal of attention, because it can tell us much more than the words someone speaks.

Size Matters
Would you believe that medical science has come up with two different words that mean “the measurement of pupil diameter”? It’s true. The general term, pupillometry, refers to any pupil measurement—usually performed using infrared cameras or sensors, because visible light would cause the pupils to contract and throw off the readings. A more specific term, pupillometrics, refers to the evaluation of one’s pupil size as an indicator of interest or emotion. University of Chicago biopsychologist Eckhard Hess coined the term in 1975. Hess discovered that when someone looks at something that causes positive feelings (or even just sparks interest), the pupils dilate—whereas the pupils contract when the person looks at unpleasant or uninteresting things. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Brain Machines

Blinking your way to relaxation

I love gadgets. A quick glance around my office, living room, or Web site would probably make that pretty clear. In particular, I seem to have the gene that favors small, battery-powered boxes with blinking lights—my iPod, PowerBook, cell phone, digital camera, and PDA, for example, all meet that general description. Even so, I only buy gadgets that I think will actually perform a useful activity or make my life better in some way. Tempted as I was by that watch with the built-in Global Positioning System receiver or the current selection of electronic book readers, I had to admit that these things would not in fact be valuable as part of my lifestyle. It was therefore with a mixture of gadget-crazed glee and circumspect puzzlement that I first looked at a device sometimes known as a “brain machine” a number of years ago at a Sharper Image store.

Relaxation in a Box
That it was a small box containing batteries and blinking lights was enough to induce me to pick it up; it also had cables running to a set of headphones and what appeared to be sunglasses with a bunch of LEDs mounted on the inside. The marketing propaganda said that the device was supposed to promote relaxation and “synchronize” one’s brain waves, whatever that meant. Out of idle curiosity I put the apparatus on and pressed the button. The LEDs on the glasses started blinking and synthesized sounds poured out of the headphones. I only used the device for a minute or so, but I was almost immediately struck by the sensation that I was somehow moving into an altered state of consciousness. To be quite honest, it was a bit freaky—fascinating, sure, but not something I really cared to experience standing in the middle of a store. I thought it would be well worth about US$50 to take home and experiment with, but the cost was quite a few times that, and I really couldn’t bring myself to spend hundreds of dollars on a box that made sunglasses light up. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Freecycling

Finding your stuff a new home, painlessly

In a couple of months, Morgen and I are going to be moving. Naturally, we’ve got a million details to worry about, but one of the biggest is what to do with all our stuff. The usual answer is simply to pile it all in a moving van and unload it at the next place—or, if your new home is too small, put the extra stuff in storage. We’ve done this numerous times before, and frankly, we’re tired of moving so much stuff around. Sure, we’ll take some things, sell some things, and store some things, but there’ll still be a lot left over that we don’t know what to do with. So this time we’re going to try something different: freecycling, or free recycling.

As middle-class Americans go, we’re not very good consumers. We rarely buy things we don’t actually need, and we haven’t accumulated anywhere near the volume of possessions that most of our peers have. But still: we have too much stuff. Stuff that’s perfectly good, but which we simply no longer need. Random small appliances and electronic gadgets. Lots of books we’ve read and won’t read again. Years worth of National Geographic magazine. A tire pump. Tools. Plastic coat hangers. The list goes on. These kinds of things would be too much bother to sell on eBay, and they’d make little or no money at a garage sale. But we don’t want to simply throw them away, either, because they could be useful to someone. But who needs these things? Freecycling, the latest fad in ownership transfer, has the answer. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Bionic Eyes

Seeing is believing

As a kid in the mid-’70s, one of my favorite TV shows was The Six Million Dollar Man. When astronaut and test pilot Steve Austin was critically injured in a plane crash, government scientists decided to replace his damaged body parts with electromechanical equivalents, making him the first bionic (or cybernetic) human. The cost for two new legs, a right arm, and a left eye turned out to be $6 million, but for that price Steve Austin was able not merely to walk again, but to outrun cars, lift enormous weights, and see faraway objects with a built-in zoom lens.

The decisive statement, which we heard as a voiceover at the beginning of each week’s episode, was, “We can rebuild him. We have the technology.” Even though I knew the show was science fiction, I assumed we really did have the technology back then, or at least something close to it—and that the cost was the main reason people weren’t being fitted with bionic limbs on a regular basis. Of course, cost aside, we didn’t then, and still don’t, have the ability to come anywhere near that sort of body-part replacement. Medical science has made great advances in the development of prosthetic limbs, and perhaps someday, decades from now, amputees will be able to receive something like Steve Austin’s bionic arms and legs—though I wouldn’t count on superhuman strength and speed. But the eye…that’s another story. Even today, restoring sight to the blind seems like the province of myth and science fiction. In many ways, it’s a much harder problem to solve than creating an artificial arm or leg, but researchers are making significant progress, and the reality of a bionic eye may not be so far-fetched after all. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Superautomatic Coffee Machines

The lazy way to make a perfect cup of coffee

There are those who believe half the pleasure of a great cup of coffee comes from the ritual of making it. The details of the ritual vary from person to person and place to place, but the desired effect is the same: a perfect cup of hot, rich, fresh coffee. “Perfect,” of course, is quite subjective. Among people who take coffee very seriously, there is a great deal of disagreement as to what types of bean, roast, and grind make the best coffee, how concentrated the grounds should be, whether the coffee should be infused into the water by dripping, steeping, or steaming, and many other details. Regardless of the precise outcome, however, coffee purists will insist that if you want coffee done right, you must make it by hand, with a great deal of care and attention to detail.

I certainly count myself among those who cherish a perfect cup of coffee. And yet, I’ve never been much for ritual. All things being equal, I’d prefer to have my coffee with as little effort as possible. I was delighted to discover that technology allows me to have my café and drink it too, thanks to a breed of coffee maker known as a superautomatic. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Dream Groups

Intramural introspection

I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Unbeknownst to most of my friends and family, I’m really an action hero. Several times each month, I go on dangerous assignments to exotic locations, where I narrowly escape death, rescue the hostages, recover the stolen chip, round up the bad guys, and generally keep civilization safe from evil. Admirers call me “Indiana Joe.” Of course, it’s no big deal, thanks to my super powers that enable me to dodge bullets, read minds, and fly off into the sunset. When I return from one of my adventures, I can almost hear the fanfare…no, wait, that’s my alarm clock. Sometimes I awake from one of my dreams uncertain of whether it really happened or not, and with a nagging sense that a vital piece of information has been lost—that the dream was trying to tell me something important. When I need to get to the bottom of a dream, I take it to Dreams Group, a small circle of friends that meets monthly for a unique kind of dream analysis.

The Woman of My Dreams
I first became aware of dream groups a number of years ago, when someone made an announcement after a church service that such a group was going to form. At first, I wasn’t even sure what they meant by “dreams”—I thought it might have been dreams in the sense of aspirations, rather than the visions that occur while we sleep. Either way, I had plenty to work with, but I had no idea what I’d be getting myself into if I joined. A week later, the group’s leader asked all interested parties to gather for more information. I was still wavering when I saw a very attractive young woman join the group. At that point I immediately determined that I was interested. (I thought the group might be worthwhile too.) [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Lichens

A tale of two organisms

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

There are some things in the natural world I tend to take for granted, but that reveal true surprises when I look at them more closely. Such is the case with lichens. I’ve known about lichens since childhood, but it turns out I never really knew anything about them at all. I always assumed they were like mosses, vegetable-like things that grew on the ground, rocks, and trees. In fact, lichens are not even one organism; they are a delicate balance of fungi and algae (and in some cases, cyanobacteria) that coexist in the form of what we see as a lichen growth.

More than this astonishing fact, a study of lichens reveals many other surprises, including examples of their extreme hardiness, the myriad of uses to which they are often put, and the fascination they once inspired in a beloved literary figure. I’ve learned that there is much more to lichens than meets the eye. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Paris Catacombs

Man-made calcium deposits

Paris is a shockingly large city. There are many fine vantage points from which to view the panorama, including the Montparnasse Tower, Sacré Coeur, the Eiffel Tower, or the bell towers of Notre Dame. I’m sure everyone who looks out over the vast expanse of Paris has a different impression; mine has been, overwhelmingly, “Gosh, that’s a lot of limestone.” With very few exceptions, the buildings of Paris are uniformly beige, limestone being the preferred building material—and not just for the buildings either, but for bridges, sidewalks, and monuments. As far as the eye can see in every direction, the earth is covered with stone. A splash of green, like a park, or gray, like the Seine, seems strangely out of place. All that stone had to come from somewhere, but it never occurs to most people to wonder where that might have been. Most of it was quarried locally, and what’s particularly interesting about this is that the empty spaces left when the limestone was removed—mind-bogglingly huge volumes of space—are largely still vacant, hidden beneath the city streets.

The Other French Empire
On visits to France, I’ve spent a good bit of time underground in Paris. There have been countless trips on the Paris Métro, of course, and last spring I spent an enjoyable afternoon exploring the public portion of the vast Paris sewer system, not to mention visiting the archeological crypts near Notre Dame. But these are merely the tip of the iceberg. Underneath Paris the real action—so to speak—is in the hundreds of kilometers of abandoned limestone quarries, part of which have been turned into a depository for the bones of millions of former citizens. As with all the underground attractions in Paris, only a portion of the catacombs is officially open to the public; this visitor-friendly section is known as the Denfert-Rochereau Ossuary, or simply the Catacombs. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Oil from Garbage

Modern-day alchemy

Well, I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The good news is that there may be an elegant solution on the horizon to the gigantic problem of garbage—and not just the kind that gets dumped in landfills, but sewage, too, along with agricultural wastes, used tires, and just about everything else. More good news: we might get to reduce dependence on foreign oil and pay less for gasoline in the process. The bad news? Forget about those electric cars or increased fuel efficiency; abandon hope of seeing your city skyline again—this solution, if it works, will keep internal combustion engines running forever.

What many investors are hoping will be the Next Big Thing is a technology called the thermal depolymerization process, or TDP for short. This patented process is being developed by Changing World Technologies of West Hempstead, New York, with its first full-scale plant already in operation in Carthage, Missouri. The idea behind TDP is not new—in fact, it’s millions of years old. Take organic matter, subject it to heat and pressure, and eventually you get oil. Of course in nature, “eventually” is usually an inconvenient number of millennia; TDP shortens that time to hours, if you can believe that. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

San Francisco's Terra Infirma

Ship to shore

Several months ago I was walking down the street in San Francisco when I noticed a large brass plaque embedded in the sidewalk. It said that the spot on which I was standing was once part of the shoreline of the San Francisco Bay. I turned and looked in the direction of the Bay, from which I was now separated by several blocks and quite a few very large buildings. Up until that time, it had never occurred to me to doubt Jefferson Starship’s claim, “We built this city on rock and roll.” The band was from San Francisco, after all, and they should know. But thinking about this area’s significant seismic activity, I started to wonder what all these buildings were really sitting on, if not solid ground.

The trivial answer, of course, is that the ground is made up of landfill. By itself, that’s nothing unusual—especially around here. Since the mid-1800s, the San Francisco Bay as a whole has lost 40% of its area to landfill. But in the northeast corner of San Francisco, the large, semicircular slice of land that was once called Yerba Buena Cove has a rather unusual makeup: it’s composed partly of the remains of hundreds of old ships. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Raclette

The cheese that eats like a meal

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

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

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From the archives…

The PB&J Campaign

The environmental impact of lunch

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

When I was younger and didn’t have a lot of money to spend on lunches outside the office, I often brought a bag lunch to work which usually (although not always) featured a peanut butter sandwich. My coworkers teased me about this habit, chalking it up to frugal necessity, but it really was a matter of preference. I really liked, maybe even loved, peanut butter sandwiches, and as a vegetarian at the time, it was also an easy way to get some protein into my diet.

According to a new online initiative called the PB&J Campaign (referring to peanut butter and jelly, for those uninitiated into this North American tradition), it turns out I was not only saving money and my health, but the environment as well. Through their Web site at www.pbjcampaign.org, the organizers behind the campaign lay out the facts about how incorporating this humble treat into your lunch plans can be a simple way to help the planet. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Coffee Decaffeination Processes

Less buzz for your buck

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

Every day it seems medical researchers come out with a new study about coffee, how it is extremely unhealthy for you and/or full of amazing benefits. The focus of most of these studies is more particularly about the effects of caffeine on human health, caffeine being coffee’s most potent element. As caffeine is a stimulant, it can produce both positive and negative effects. It can wake you up in the morning, but it can also lead to sleeplessness, a racing heartbeat, and anxiety.

It is therefore no surprise that many people have decided to cut caffeine out of their diets. What I sometimes find surprising is how many people still opt to drink coffee, just without the caffeine. I have grown to like the taste of coffee, but to me the main purpose of drinking it is to get an extra jolt of energy. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Lucid Dreams

Waking up to the reality of dreaming

I dream that I am standing in a very unfamiliar building. Something about the strangeness of my surroundings leads me to wonder if I might not be dreaming. I decide to perform a little experiment to determine whether it really is a dream or not. There is a short flight of stairs ahead of me going down to a lower level. I know that if I jump off the top step and find I can fly, it must be a dream, whereas if land normally, it isn’t. So I jump, and sure enough, I float down to the next level. “Cool!” I think, “I am dreaming—that must mean I can do anything I want!” But I can’t decide what to do next. I try walking through some people but that doesn’t work, and after a few minutes I slip back into the unconscious world of regular dreams. Nevertheless, the experience is fascinating and exhilarating. Being able to consciously influence the course of my dream is a wonderfully novel sensation.

A lucid dream is simply one in which you realize that you are dreaming. The dream I just described happened about a year ago—and it happened spontaneously, without any effort or intention on my part. Since then, I’ve read about and practiced a variety of methods for inducing lucid dreams deliberately. Although I can’t yet dream lucidly on command, my success rate has gradually improved. For me, this is a purely recreational activity, but for centuries lucid dreaming, in one form or another, has been practiced with great seriousness in certain religious and philosophical traditions. Tibetan Buddhism, in particular, has an ancient discipline of meditative techniques designed to encourage not just lucid dreaming, but a continuously unbroken state of consciousness, while sleeping and awake. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Iris Scans

A new angle on photo identification

How many passwords do you have? For the average computer user, the number can range from dozens to hundreds. It seems like every time I turn around another Web site asks me to come up with a password; I need them to get access to bank accounts, utilities, discussion boards, travel reservations, and countless other services. Security experts tell us that you should never use the same password twice, that passwords should never contain words found in a dictionary, and that they should include combinations of upper- and lowercase letters, numbers, and special characters such as punctuation. Wow. I try to follow this advice for the most part, but the more secure and diverse I make my passwords, the harder they are to remember. A forgotten password is useless, and if I write it down, I take a risk that someone will find it. As long as someone can guess or steal my passwords, my money and important data are vulnerable. The same goes for PINs used to get money from ATMs or codes used to unlock doors and gates. A few months ago I needed to make a deposit into a bank account I rarely use, and although I had my card with me, I had forgotten my PIN and had to return home to look it up on the notice my bank sent me way back when. My money was safe, all right—even from me!

The basic question a password attempts to answer is: Are you who you claim to be? I can walk up to a bank teller with a name and account number, but if the teller doesn’t know me personally, he has to have some way to confirm my identity. Photo ID and signatures are often used for this purpose—on drivers’ licenses, passports, credit cards, and checks. But photos and signatures are relatively easy to forge, and they do little good when conducting business over the Web. This is why, increasingly, companies and governments are turning to biometric data—measurements of some aspect of the body—to solve problems of identification and authentication. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Eye Language

Look what you’re saying

A while back, someone remarked in passing that a mutual friend had “such beautiful blue eyes.” I was surprised—and a bit embarrassed—to realize that in all the years I’d known the woman in question, I had never noticed the color of her eyes. In North America, social convention dictates that we look someone directly in the eye while conversing, so failing to register my friend’s eye color implied that my communication skills were faulty too. But if I can be forgiven for ignoring the iris, the pupil is something that clearly deserves a great deal of attention, because it can tell us much more than the words someone speaks.

Size Matters
Would you believe that medical science has come up with two different words that mean “the measurement of pupil diameter”? It’s true. The general term, pupillometry, refers to any pupil measurement—usually performed using infrared cameras or sensors, because visible light would cause the pupils to contract and throw off the readings. A more specific term, pupillometrics, refers to the evaluation of one’s pupil size as an indicator of interest or emotion. University of Chicago biopsychologist Eckhard Hess coined the term in 1975. Hess discovered that when someone looks at something that causes positive feelings (or even just sparks interest), the pupils dilate—whereas the pupils contract when the person looks at unpleasant or uninteresting things. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Brain Machines

Blinking your way to relaxation

I love gadgets. A quick glance around my office, living room, or Web site would probably make that pretty clear. In particular, I seem to have the gene that favors small, battery-powered boxes with blinking lights—my iPod, PowerBook, cell phone, digital camera, and PDA, for example, all meet that general description. Even so, I only buy gadgets that I think will actually perform a useful activity or make my life better in some way. Tempted as I was by that watch with the built-in Global Positioning System receiver or the current selection of electronic book readers, I had to admit that these things would not in fact be valuable as part of my lifestyle. It was therefore with a mixture of gadget-crazed glee and circumspect puzzlement that I first looked at a device sometimes known as a “brain machine” a number of years ago at a Sharper Image store.

Relaxation in a Box
That it was a small box containing batteries and blinking lights was enough to induce me to pick it up; it also had cables running to a set of headphones and what appeared to be sunglasses with a bunch of LEDs mounted on the inside. The marketing propaganda said that the device was supposed to promote relaxation and “synchronize” one’s brain waves, whatever that meant. Out of idle curiosity I put the apparatus on and pressed the button. The LEDs on the glasses started blinking and synthesized sounds poured out of the headphones. I only used the device for a minute or so, but I was almost immediately struck by the sensation that I was somehow moving into an altered state of consciousness. To be quite honest, it was a bit freaky—fascinating, sure, but not something I really cared to experience standing in the middle of a store. I thought it would be well worth about US$50 to take home and experiment with, but the cost was quite a few times that, and I really couldn’t bring myself to spend hundreds of dollars on a box that made sunglasses light up. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Freecycling

Finding your stuff a new home, painlessly

In a couple of months, Morgen and I are going to be moving. Naturally, we’ve got a million details to worry about, but one of the biggest is what to do with all our stuff. The usual answer is simply to pile it all in a moving van and unload it at the next place—or, if your new home is too small, put the extra stuff in storage. We’ve done this numerous times before, and frankly, we’re tired of moving so much stuff around. Sure, we’ll take some things, sell some things, and store some things, but there’ll still be a lot left over that we don’t know what to do with. So this time we’re going to try something different: freecycling, or free recycling.

As middle-class Americans go, we’re not very good consumers. We rarely buy things we don’t actually need, and we haven’t accumulated anywhere near the volume of possessions that most of our peers have. But still: we have too much stuff. Stuff that’s perfectly good, but which we simply no longer need. Random small appliances and electronic gadgets. Lots of books we’ve read and won’t read again. Years worth of National Geographic magazine. A tire pump. Tools. Plastic coat hangers. The list goes on. These kinds of things would be too much bother to sell on eBay, and they’d make little or no money at a garage sale. But we don’t want to simply throw them away, either, because they could be useful to someone. But who needs these things? Freecycling, the latest fad in ownership transfer, has the answer. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Bionic Eyes

Seeing is believing

As a kid in the mid-’70s, one of my favorite TV shows was The Six Million Dollar Man. When astronaut and test pilot Steve Austin was critically injured in a plane crash, government scientists decided to replace his damaged body parts with electromechanical equivalents, making him the first bionic (or cybernetic) human. The cost for two new legs, a right arm, and a left eye turned out to be $6 million, but for that price Steve Austin was able not merely to walk again, but to outrun cars, lift enormous weights, and see faraway objects with a built-in zoom lens.

The decisive statement, which we heard as a voiceover at the beginning of each week’s episode, was, “We can rebuild him. We have the technology.” Even though I knew the show was science fiction, I assumed we really did have the technology back then, or at least something close to it—and that the cost was the main reason people weren’t being fitted with bionic limbs on a regular basis. Of course, cost aside, we didn’t then, and still don’t, have the ability to come anywhere near that sort of body-part replacement. Medical science has made great advances in the development of prosthetic limbs, and perhaps someday, decades from now, amputees will be able to receive something like Steve Austin’s bionic arms and legs—though I wouldn’t count on superhuman strength and speed. But the eye…that’s another story. Even today, restoring sight to the blind seems like the province of myth and science fiction. In many ways, it’s a much harder problem to solve than creating an artificial arm or leg, but researchers are making significant progress, and the reality of a bionic eye may not be so far-fetched after all. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Superautomatic Coffee Machines

The lazy way to make a perfect cup of coffee

There are those who believe half the pleasure of a great cup of coffee comes from the ritual of making it. The details of the ritual vary from person to person and place to place, but the desired effect is the same: a perfect cup of hot, rich, fresh coffee. “Perfect,” of course, is quite subjective. Among people who take coffee very seriously, there is a great deal of disagreement as to what types of bean, roast, and grind make the best coffee, how concentrated the grounds should be, whether the coffee should be infused into the water by dripping, steeping, or steaming, and many other details. Regardless of the precise outcome, however, coffee purists will insist that if you want coffee done right, you must make it by hand, with a great deal of care and attention to detail.

I certainly count myself among those who cherish a perfect cup of coffee. And yet, I’ve never been much for ritual. All things being equal, I’d prefer to have my coffee with as little effort as possible. I was delighted to discover that technology allows me to have my café and drink it too, thanks to a breed of coffee maker known as a superautomatic. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Dream Groups

Intramural introspection

I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Unbeknownst to most of my friends and family, I’m really an action hero. Several times each month, I go on dangerous assignments to exotic locations, where I narrowly escape death, rescue the hostages, recover the stolen chip, round up the bad guys, and generally keep civilization safe from evil. Admirers call me “Indiana Joe.” Of course, it’s no big deal, thanks to my super powers that enable me to dodge bullets, read minds, and fly off into the sunset. When I return from one of my adventures, I can almost hear the fanfare…no, wait, that’s my alarm clock. Sometimes I awake from one of my dreams uncertain of whether it really happened or not, and with a nagging sense that a vital piece of information has been lost—that the dream was trying to tell me something important. When I need to get to the bottom of a dream, I take it to Dreams Group, a small circle of friends that meets monthly for a unique kind of dream analysis.

The Woman of My Dreams
I first became aware of dream groups a number of years ago, when someone made an announcement after a church service that such a group was going to form. At first, I wasn’t even sure what they meant by “dreams”—I thought it might have been dreams in the sense of aspirations, rather than the visions that occur while we sleep. Either way, I had plenty to work with, but I had no idea what I’d be getting myself into if I joined. A week later, the group’s leader asked all interested parties to gather for more information. I was still wavering when I saw a very attractive young woman join the group. At that point I immediately determined that I was interested. (I thought the group might be worthwhile too.) [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Lichens

A tale of two organisms

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

There are some things in the natural world I tend to take for granted, but that reveal true surprises when I look at them more closely. Such is the case with lichens. I’ve known about lichens since childhood, but it turns out I never really knew anything about them at all. I always assumed they were like mosses, vegetable-like things that grew on the ground, rocks, and trees. In fact, lichens are not even one organism; they are a delicate balance of fungi and algae (and in some cases, cyanobacteria) that coexist in the form of what we see as a lichen growth.

More than this astonishing fact, a study of lichens reveals many other surprises, including examples of their extreme hardiness, the myriad of uses to which they are often put, and the fascination they once inspired in a beloved literary figure. I’ve learned that there is much more to lichens than meets the eye. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Paris Catacombs

Man-made calcium deposits

Paris is a shockingly large city. There are many fine vantage points from which to view the panorama, including the Montparnasse Tower, Sacré Coeur, the Eiffel Tower, or the bell towers of Notre Dame. I’m sure everyone who looks out over the vast expanse of Paris has a different impression; mine has been, overwhelmingly, “Gosh, that’s a lot of limestone.” With very few exceptions, the buildings of Paris are uniformly beige, limestone being the preferred building material—and not just for the buildings either, but for bridges, sidewalks, and monuments. As far as the eye can see in every direction, the earth is covered with stone. A splash of green, like a park, or gray, like the Seine, seems strangely out of place. All that stone had to come from somewhere, but it never occurs to most people to wonder where that might have been. Most of it was quarried locally, and what’s particularly interesting about this is that the empty spaces left when the limestone was removed—mind-bogglingly huge volumes of space—are largely still vacant, hidden beneath the city streets.

The Other French Empire
On visits to France, I’ve spent a good bit of time underground in Paris. There have been countless trips on the Paris Métro, of course, and last spring I spent an enjoyable afternoon exploring the public portion of the vast Paris sewer system, not to mention visiting the archeological crypts near Notre Dame. But these are merely the tip of the iceberg. Underneath Paris the real action—so to speak—is in the hundreds of kilometers of abandoned limestone quarries, part of which have been turned into a depository for the bones of millions of former citizens. As with all the underground attractions in Paris, only a portion of the catacombs is officially open to the public; this visitor-friendly section is known as the Denfert-Rochereau Ossuary, or simply the Catacombs. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Oil from Garbage

Modern-day alchemy

Well, I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The good news is that there may be an elegant solution on the horizon to the gigantic problem of garbage—and not just the kind that gets dumped in landfills, but sewage, too, along with agricultural wastes, used tires, and just about everything else. More good news: we might get to reduce dependence on foreign oil and pay less for gasoline in the process. The bad news? Forget about those electric cars or increased fuel efficiency; abandon hope of seeing your city skyline again—this solution, if it works, will keep internal combustion engines running forever.

What many investors are hoping will be the Next Big Thing is a technology called the thermal depolymerization process, or TDP for short. This patented process is being developed by Changing World Technologies of West Hempstead, New York, with its first full-scale plant already in operation in Carthage, Missouri. The idea behind TDP is not new—in fact, it’s millions of years old. Take organic matter, subject it to heat and pressure, and eventually you get oil. Of course in nature, “eventually” is usually an inconvenient number of millennia; TDP shortens that time to hours, if you can believe that. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

San Francisco's Terra Infirma

Ship to shore

Several months ago I was walking down the street in San Francisco when I noticed a large brass plaque embedded in the sidewalk. It said that the spot on which I was standing was once part of the shoreline of the San Francisco Bay. I turned and looked in the direction of the Bay, from which I was now separated by several blocks and quite a few very large buildings. Up until that time, it had never occurred to me to doubt Jefferson Starship’s claim, “We built this city on rock and roll.” The band was from San Francisco, after all, and they should know. But thinking about this area’s significant seismic activity, I started to wonder what all these buildings were really sitting on, if not solid ground.

The trivial answer, of course, is that the ground is made up of landfill. By itself, that’s nothing unusual—especially around here. Since the mid-1800s, the San Francisco Bay as a whole has lost 40% of its area to landfill. But in the northeast corner of San Francisco, the large, semicircular slice of land that was once called Yerba Buena Cove has a rather unusual makeup: it’s composed partly of the remains of hundreds of old ships. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The PB&J Campaign

The environmental impact of lunch

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

When I was younger and didn’t have a lot of money to spend on lunches outside the office, I often brought a bag lunch to work which usually (although not always) featured a peanut butter sandwich. My coworkers teased me about this habit, chalking it up to frugal necessity, but it really was a matter of preference. I really liked, maybe even loved, peanut butter sandwiches, and as a vegetarian at the time, it was also an easy way to get some protein into my diet.

According to a new online initiative called the PB&J Campaign (referring to peanut butter and jelly, for those uninitiated into this North American tradition), it turns out I was not only saving money and my health, but the environment as well. Through their Web site at www.pbjcampaign.org, the organizers behind the campaign lay out the facts about how incorporating this humble treat into your lunch plans can be a simple way to help the planet. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Coffee Decaffeination Processes

Less buzz for your buck

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

Every day it seems medical researchers come out with a new study about coffee, how it is extremely unhealthy for you and/or full of amazing benefits. The focus of most of these studies is more particularly about the effects of caffeine on human health, caffeine being coffee’s most potent element. As caffeine is a stimulant, it can produce both positive and negative effects. It can wake you up in the morning, but it can also lead to sleeplessness, a racing heartbeat, and anxiety.

It is therefore no surprise that many people have decided to cut caffeine out of their diets. What I sometimes find surprising is how many people still opt to drink coffee, just without the caffeine. I have grown to like the taste of coffee, but to me the main purpose of drinking it is to get an extra jolt of energy. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Freecycling

Finding your stuff a new home, painlessly

In a couple of months, Morgen and I are going to be moving. Naturally, we’ve got a million details to worry about, but one of the biggest is what to do with all our stuff. The usual answer is simply to pile it all in a moving van and unload it at the next place—or, if your new home is too small, put the extra stuff in storage. We’ve done this numerous times before, and frankly, we’re tired of moving so much stuff around. Sure, we’ll take some things, sell some things, and store some things, but there’ll still be a lot left over that we don’t know what to do with. So this time we’re going to try something different: freecycling, or free recycling.

As middle-class Americans go, we’re not very good consumers. We rarely buy things we don’t actually need, and we haven’t accumulated anywhere near the volume of possessions that most of our peers have. But still: we have too much stuff. Stuff that’s perfectly good, but which we simply no longer need. Random small appliances and electronic gadgets. Lots of books we’ve read and won’t read again. Years worth of National Geographic magazine. A tire pump. Tools. Plastic coat hangers. The list goes on. These kinds of things would be too much bother to sell on eBay, and they’d make little or no money at a garage sale. But we don’t want to simply throw them away, either, because they could be useful to someone. But who needs these things? Freecycling, the latest fad in ownership transfer, has the answer. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Lichens

A tale of two organisms

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

There are some things in the natural world I tend to take for granted, but that reveal true surprises when I look at them more closely. Such is the case with lichens. I’ve known about lichens since childhood, but it turns out I never really knew anything about them at all. I always assumed they were like mosses, vegetable-like things that grew on the ground, rocks, and trees. In fact, lichens are not even one organism; they are a delicate balance of fungi and algae (and in some cases, cyanobacteria) that coexist in the form of what we see as a lichen growth.

More than this astonishing fact, a study of lichens reveals many other surprises, including examples of their extreme hardiness, the myriad of uses to which they are often put, and the fascination they once inspired in a beloved literary figure. I’ve learned that there is much more to lichens than meets the eye. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Raclette

The cheese that eats like a meal

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

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

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From the archives…

Lucid Dreams

Waking up to the reality of dreaming

I dream that I am standing in a very unfamiliar building. Something about the strangeness of my surroundings leads me to wonder if I might not be dreaming. I decide to perform a little experiment to determine whether it really is a dream or not. There is a short flight of stairs ahead of me going down to a lower level. I know that if I jump off the top step and find I can fly, it must be a dream, whereas if land normally, it isn’t. So I jump, and sure enough, I float down to the next level. “Cool!” I think, “I am dreaming—that must mean I can do anything I want!” But I can’t decide what to do next. I try walking through some people but that doesn’t work, and after a few minutes I slip back into the unconscious world of regular dreams. Nevertheless, the experience is fascinating and exhilarating. Being able to consciously influence the course of my dream is a wonderfully novel sensation.

A lucid dream is simply one in which you realize that you are dreaming. The dream I just described happened about a year ago—and it happened spontaneously, without any effort or intention on my part. Since then, I’ve read about and practiced a variety of methods for inducing lucid dreams deliberately. Although I can’t yet dream lucidly on command, my success rate has gradually improved. For me, this is a purely recreational activity, but for centuries lucid dreaming, in one form or another, has been practiced with great seriousness in certain religious and philosophical traditions. Tibetan Buddhism, in particular, has an ancient discipline of meditative techniques designed to encourage not just lucid dreaming, but a continuously unbroken state of consciousness, while sleeping and awake. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Iris Scans

A new angle on photo identification

How many passwords do you have? For the average computer user, the number can range from dozens to hundreds. It seems like every time I turn around another Web site asks me to come up with a password; I need them to get access to bank accounts, utilities, discussion boards, travel reservations, and countless other services. Security experts tell us that you should never use the same password twice, that passwords should never contain words found in a dictionary, and that they should include combinations of upper- and lowercase letters, numbers, and special characters such as punctuation. Wow. I try to follow this advice for the most part, but the more secure and diverse I make my passwords, the harder they are to remember. A forgotten password is useless, and if I write it down, I take a risk that someone will find it. As long as someone can guess or steal my passwords, my money and important data are vulnerable. The same goes for PINs used to get money from ATMs or codes used to unlock doors and gates. A few months ago I needed to make a deposit into a bank account I rarely use, and although I had my card with me, I had forgotten my PIN and had to return home to look it up on the notice my bank sent me way back when. My money was safe, all right—even from me!

The basic question a password attempts to answer is: Are you who you claim to be? I can walk up to a bank teller with a name and account number, but if the teller doesn’t know me personally, he has to have some way to confirm my identity. Photo ID and signatures are often used for this purpose—on drivers’ licenses, passports, credit cards, and checks. But photos and signatures are relatively easy to forge, and they do little good when conducting business over the Web. This is why, increasingly, companies and governments are turning to biometric data—measurements of some aspect of the body—to solve problems of identification and authentication. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Eye Language

Look what you’re saying

A while back, someone remarked in passing that a mutual friend had “such beautiful blue eyes.” I was surprised—and a bit embarrassed—to realize that in all the years I’d known the woman in question, I had never noticed the color of her eyes. In North America, social convention dictates that we look someone directly in the eye while conversing, so failing to register my friend’s eye color implied that my communication skills were faulty too. But if I can be forgiven for ignoring the iris, the pupil is something that clearly deserves a great deal of attention, because it can tell us much more than the words someone speaks.

Size Matters
Would you believe that medical science has come up with two different words that mean “the measurement of pupil diameter”? It’s true. The general term, pupillometry, refers to any pupil measurement—usually performed using infrared cameras or sensors, because visible light would cause the pupils to contract and throw off the readings. A more specific term, pupillometrics, refers to the evaluation of one’s pupil size as an indicator of interest or emotion. University of Chicago biopsychologist Eckhard Hess coined the term in 1975. Hess discovered that when someone looks at something that causes positive feelings (or even just sparks interest), the pupils dilate—whereas the pupils contract when the person looks at unpleasant or uninteresting things. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Brain Machines

Blinking your way to relaxation

I love gadgets. A quick glance around my office, living room, or Web site would probably make that pretty clear. In particular, I seem to have the gene that favors small, battery-powered boxes with blinking lights—my iPod, PowerBook, cell phone, digital camera, and PDA, for example, all meet that general description. Even so, I only buy gadgets that I think will actually perform a useful activity or make my life better in some way. Tempted as I was by that watch with the built-in Global Positioning System receiver or the current selection of electronic book readers, I had to admit that these things would not in fact be valuable as part of my lifestyle. It was therefore with a mixture of gadget-crazed glee and circumspect puzzlement that I first looked at a device sometimes known as a “brain machine” a number of years ago at a Sharper Image store.

Relaxation in a Box
That it was a small box containing batteries and blinking lights was enough to induce me to pick it up; it also had cables running to a set of headphones and what appeared to be sunglasses with a bunch of LEDs mounted on the inside. The marketing propaganda said that the device was supposed to promote relaxation and “synchronize” one’s brain waves, whatever that meant. Out of idle curiosity I put the apparatus on and pressed the button. The LEDs on the glasses started blinking and synthesized sounds poured out of the headphones. I only used the device for a minute or so, but I was almost immediately struck by the sensation that I was somehow moving into an altered state of consciousness. To be quite honest, it was a bit freaky—fascinating, sure, but not something I really cared to experience standing in the middle of a store. I thought it would be well worth about US$50 to take home and experiment with, but the cost was quite a few times that, and I really couldn’t bring myself to spend hundreds of dollars on a box that made sunglasses light up. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Bionic Eyes

Seeing is believing

As a kid in the mid-’70s, one of my favorite TV shows was The Six Million Dollar Man. When astronaut and test pilot Steve Austin was critically injured in a plane crash, government scientists decided to replace his damaged body parts with electromechanical equivalents, making him the first bionic (or cybernetic) human. The cost for two new legs, a right arm, and a left eye turned out to be $6 million, but for that price Steve Austin was able not merely to walk again, but to outrun cars, lift enormous weights, and see faraway objects with a built-in zoom lens.

The decisive statement, which we heard as a voiceover at the beginning of each week’s episode, was, “We can rebuild him. We have the technology.” Even though I knew the show was science fiction, I assumed we really did have the technology back then, or at least something close to it—and that the cost was the main reason people weren’t being fitted with bionic limbs on a regular basis. Of course, cost aside, we didn’t then, and still don’t, have the ability to come anywhere near that sort of body-part replacement. Medical science has made great advances in the development of prosthetic limbs, and perhaps someday, decades from now, amputees will be able to receive something like Steve Austin’s bionic arms and legs—though I wouldn’t count on superhuman strength and speed. But the eye…that’s another story. Even today, restoring sight to the blind seems like the province of myth and science fiction. In many ways, it’s a much harder problem to solve than creating an artificial arm or leg, but researchers are making significant progress, and the reality of a bionic eye may not be so far-fetched after all. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Superautomatic Coffee Machines

The lazy way to make a perfect cup of coffee

There are those who believe half the pleasure of a great cup of coffee comes from the ritual of making it. The details of the ritual vary from person to person and place to place, but the desired effect is the same: a perfect cup of hot, rich, fresh coffee. “Perfect,” of course, is quite subjective. Among people who take coffee very seriously, there is a great deal of disagreement as to what types of bean, roast, and grind make the best coffee, how concentrated the grounds should be, whether the coffee should be infused into the water by dripping, steeping, or steaming, and many other details. Regardless of the precise outcome, however, coffee purists will insist that if you want coffee done right, you must make it by hand, with a great deal of care and attention to detail.

I certainly count myself among those who cherish a perfect cup of coffee. And yet, I’ve never been much for ritual. All things being equal, I’d prefer to have my coffee with as little effort as possible. I was delighted to discover that technology allows me to have my café and drink it too, thanks to a breed of coffee maker known as a superautomatic. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Dream Groups

Intramural introspection

I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Unbeknownst to most of my friends and family, I’m really an action hero. Several times each month, I go on dangerous assignments to exotic locations, where I narrowly escape death, rescue the hostages, recover the stolen chip, round up the bad guys, and generally keep civilization safe from evil. Admirers call me “Indiana Joe.” Of course, it’s no big deal, thanks to my super powers that enable me to dodge bullets, read minds, and fly off into the sunset. When I return from one of my adventures, I can almost hear the fanfare…no, wait, that’s my alarm clock. Sometimes I awake from one of my dreams uncertain of whether it really happened or not, and with a nagging sense that a vital piece of information has been lost—that the dream was trying to tell me something important. When I need to get to the bottom of a dream, I take it to Dreams Group, a small circle of friends that meets monthly for a unique kind of dream analysis.

The Woman of My Dreams
I first became aware of dream groups a number of years ago, when someone made an announcement after a church service that such a group was going to form. At first, I wasn’t even sure what they meant by “dreams”—I thought it might have been dreams in the sense of aspirations, rather than the visions that occur while we sleep. Either way, I had plenty to work with, but I had no idea what I’d be getting myself into if I joined. A week later, the group’s leader asked all interested parties to gather for more information. I was still wavering when I saw a very attractive young woman join the group. At that point I immediately determined that I was interested. (I thought the group might be worthwhile too.) [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Paris Catacombs

Man-made calcium deposits

Paris is a shockingly large city. There are many fine vantage points from which to view the panorama, including the Montparnasse Tower, Sacré Coeur, the Eiffel Tower, or the bell towers of Notre Dame. I’m sure everyone who looks out over the vast expanse of Paris has a different impression; mine has been, overwhelmingly, “Gosh, that’s a lot of limestone.” With very few exceptions, the buildings of Paris are uniformly beige, limestone being the preferred building material—and not just for the buildings either, but for bridges, sidewalks, and monuments. As far as the eye can see in every direction, the earth is covered with stone. A splash of green, like a park, or gray, like the Seine, seems strangely out of place. All that stone had to come from somewhere, but it never occurs to most people to wonder where that might have been. Most of it was quarried locally, and what’s particularly interesting about this is that the empty spaces left when the limestone was removed—mind-bogglingly huge volumes of space—are largely still vacant, hidden beneath the city streets.

The Other French Empire
On visits to France, I’ve spent a good bit of time underground in Paris. There have been countless trips on the Paris Métro, of course, and last spring I spent an enjoyable afternoon exploring the public portion of the vast Paris sewer system, not to mention visiting the archeological crypts near Notre Dame. But these are merely the tip of the iceberg. Underneath Paris the real action—so to speak—is in the hundreds of kilometers of abandoned limestone quarries, part of which have been turned into a depository for the bones of millions of former citizens. As with all the underground attractions in Paris, only a portion of the catacombs is officially open to the public; this visitor-friendly section is known as the Denfert-Rochereau Ossuary, or simply the Catacombs. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Oil from Garbage

Modern-day alchemy

Well, I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The good news is that there may be an elegant solution on the horizon to the gigantic problem of garbage—and not just the kind that gets dumped in landfills, but sewage, too, along with agricultural wastes, used tires, and just about everything else. More good news: we might get to reduce dependence on foreign oil and pay less for gasoline in the process. The bad news? Forget about those electric cars or increased fuel efficiency; abandon hope of seeing your city skyline again—this solution, if it works, will keep internal combustion engines running forever.

What many investors are hoping will be the Next Big Thing is a technology called the thermal depolymerization process, or TDP for short. This patented process is being developed by Changing World Technologies of West Hempstead, New York, with its first full-scale plant already in operation in Carthage, Missouri. The idea behind TDP is not new—in fact, it’s millions of years old. Take organic matter, subject it to heat and pressure, and eventually you get oil. Of course in nature, “eventually” is usually an inconvenient number of millennia; TDP shortens that time to hours, if you can believe that. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

San Francisco's Terra Infirma

Ship to shore

Several months ago I was walking down the street in San Francisco when I noticed a large brass plaque embedded in the sidewalk. It said that the spot on which I was standing was once part of the shoreline of the San Francisco Bay. I turned and looked in the direction of the Bay, from which I was now separated by several blocks and quite a few very large buildings. Up until that time, it had never occurred to me to doubt Jefferson Starship’s claim, “We built this city on rock and roll.” The band was from San Francisco, after all, and they should know. But thinking about this area’s significant seismic activity, I started to wonder what all these buildings were really sitting on, if not solid ground.

The trivial answer, of course, is that the ground is made up of landfill. By itself, that’s nothing unusual—especially around here. Since the mid-1800s, the San Francisco Bay as a whole has lost 40% of its area to landfill. But in the northeast corner of San Francisco, the large, semicircular slice of land that was once called Yerba Buena Cove has a rather unusual makeup: it’s composed partly of the remains of hundreds of old ships. [Article Continues…]

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