From the archives…

New Orleans Walking Tours

Ghosts, vampires, and history

The first time I visited New Orleans, I didn’t know anything about the city except that it was legendary for its Mardi Gras celebrations. But the more I learned about New Orleans, the more I came to love it. The history of the city is immensely colorful and complex. New Orleans has some of the most distinctive cuisine in the United States, a well-earned reputation as a center of music and culture, and a vibrant nightlife. But what I find most interesting about the city is its rich collection of legends and myths. The best way to learn about them is to take one of numerous walking tours of the French Quarter.

The Spanish French Quarter
The French Quarter—the focal point of the city for most tourists—is a well-defined area about 13 blocks by 7 blocks, bordered by the Mississippi River on the south. This was the original city of New Orleans, established by French settlers in 1718 and controlled by France until 1762, when it was given to Spain. The city remained under Spanish rule until the early 1800s, when it was secretly returned to France, only to be immediately turned over to the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase. The French Quarter is so named because for many years it was the district in which the majority of the French-speaking population lived. However, much of the original city was destroyed by massive fires in 1788 and 1794. Since Spain was in control during that time, the new buildings for the most part reflected Spanish architecture, and that is what survives today as the French Quarter. Most buildings are only three or four stories high. Wrought-iron balconies extend over sidewalks in the business district, and louvered shutters cover most windows and doors. The French Quarter has the feeling of being very old—for a North American city—largely because of strict construction rules designed to protect the historical character of the buildings. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Paris Sewers

Exploring the dark underbelly of the City of Light

Ah, Paris. It’s one of my very favorite places, not least because its ITSKI (Interesting Things per Square Kilometer Index) is off the scale. There are, of course, the very touristy sights like the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, and Notre Dame, as well as thousands of cafés, shops, and bakeries that tantalize and inspire. There are also a great many lesser-known places of historical interest, including one where I spent an afternoon on each of my past two visits to the city: the sewer system. OK, the aroma wasn’t quite as pleasing as that of a fresh baguette, but the Paris sewer system—part of which has been turned into a museum that’s open to the public—is vast, intricate, and surprising in many ways. You may think of a sewer as nothing more than a conduit for waste, but in Paris, there’s more to the sewers than meets the nose.

The tunnels that make up the Paris sewer system are mostly very large—almost the size of a subway tunnel. In most cases a central channel, wide enough and deep enough for a boat, carries waste and runoff water; on both sides are broad, paved walkways with enough headroom for most people to walk comfortably. Overhead are pipes that supply the city’s fresh water, telecommunications cables, and pneumatic tubes, among other things. But it’s the length and complexity of the tunnels that make them so intriguing: they almost exactly follow the layout of the streets above—in fact, every corner within the sewers has a street sign on it that mirrors the one on the surface. Where a wide boulevard runs on the surface, a wide sewer tunnel (or two) runs beneath; smaller streets have smaller sewers, and even side streets and alleys are duplicated underground. In all, there are about 1,300 miles (2,100km) of sewer tunnels underneath Paris. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Sutro Baths

Diving into the past

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

At the intersection of the Boulevard St. Michel and the Boulevard St. Germain, in the heart of Paris’s Latin Quarter, a ruin of brick and stone walls, vaguely recognizable as rooms or chambers, is being unearthed. This spot was once the site of Roman public baths, a place of leisure for local residents in the first to third century A.D. These baths were destroyed in the third century, and the property was later bought in 1330 by the Abbot of Cluny, who built a new structure alongside the ruins. During the French Revolution, the property passed out of the church’s hands, and had various owners (one of whom covered the bath ruins in six feet of soil) before being bought by Alexandre du Sommerard, a collector of medieval antiquities. Today, both of these sites are part of the Musée National du Moyen Age, a museum dedicated to the arts and history of the Middle Ages.

Besides the relative novelty of visiting ancient (and surprisingly intact) Roman ruins below the streets of a 21st-century city, the baths give a fascinating insight into Roman culture. These baths consisted of a series of pools: the tepidarium (lukewarm), caldarium (hot), and frigidarium (cold). Guests normally moved from the lukewarm pool to the hot pool, then to the cold before retiring to rooms designed for socializing with other guests. Roman baths of this type were open to everyone, and were an important part of life in ancient Roman towns. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Printing Skin Tissue

Human organs from 3-D printers

An earlier article here covered 3-D printers, which use modified inkjet technology to create solid objects with extremely complex shapes. The printers use a variety of techniques to solidify arbitrary areas on the surface of a powdered substrate, which supports the object as it is built up layer by layer. Designers commonly use 3-D printers for prototyping things like consumer electronic products, ensuring that they will be manufacturable before expensive metal molds are created to enable mass production. I ran into an old acquaintance the day that article ran who had never heard of Interesting Thing of the Day, so I told him about the site. He asked me what that day’s topic was, and I happily described the 3-D printers. He said, “Oh yeah, I know about those. Did you know they’re also using them to ‘print’ human tissue?” Um…no, I had no idea. It turns out that the humble inkjet printer has quite a few tricks up its sleeve—including, incredibly, the capability of manufacturing living skin and other organs.

Cell Mates
Growing individual human cells is not especially difficult. Take a sample of healthy cells, provide them with the right nutrients and environment, and they will grow and multiply. When multiple tissue cells are placed in close proximity to each other, they have a tendency to fuse together. Because of this phenomenon, hospitals can “grow” new skin to be used as grafts for burn patients using the patient’s own skin cells. However, this technique does have significant limitations. In particular, the skin cannot be made very thick because there’s no way to get blood to deeper cells—the process grows a homogeneous sheet of skin without the essential network of blood vessels, not to mention pores and other minute structures. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Tagmemics

The linguistic theory of everything

When I was studying linguistics in graduate school, the question people asked me most often was, “So how many languages can you speak?” I’d roll my eyes and say, “One, almost.” I’d then try to explain that I usually get by pretty well in English, that I can order food in a French restaurant without embarrassing myself, and that I’ve picked up a smattering of phrases in half a dozen other languages—but that’s pretty much it (unless you want to count computer languages or ancient Greek and Hebrew, of which I know just enough to mistranslate an inscription here and there). Linguists, I would say, are not necessarily polyglots; the study of linguistics is not about learning a bunch of languages but rather about understanding the nature of language generally: how the brain creates and interprets it, how children learn it, how it functions in society, how to model it computationally, that sort of thing. (At this point listeners would generally nod, try valiantly to suppress a yawn, and change the subject.)

In the course of my studies, I came across a fringe linguistic theory that is, even by the most generous standards, far from being generally accepted, or even respected. The theory is known as tagmemics; its inventor and primary proponent, the late Dr. Kenneth L. Pike, was on my thesis committee. So I got to spend some quality time getting to know the man and his theory—which, though I argued forcefully against its shortcomings, is nevertheless quite interesting. It’s the one linguistic theory that ordinary, nonacademic human beings have a reasonable chance of comprehending without months of study. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Tag Questions

You know what this is about, don’t you?

People who want to make fun of the Canadian dialect of English invariably start with one of its two most idiosyncratic features. The pronunciation of the diphthong “ou,” of course, is one of them—in words like out and about, Americans exaggerate both the gliding and rounding of the vowels so that it sounds like the “ow” in power, whereas the stereotypical Canadian pronunciation is closer to oat and a boat. I know lots of Canadians who protest this characterization, pointing out that Americans butcher the language much more egregiously. They may say, “Every dialect of English has its faults, eh?” This is the second oft-ridiculed peculiarity of Canadian English: turning a statement into a question by adding the word “eh” at the end, which means, approximately, “Isn’t that so?”

Needless to say, not all Canadians fit the stereotype—my wife, for example, rarely uses “eh,” just as I avoid most of the influences of Pittsburghese. Some of her family members from Saskatchewan, on the other hand, say “hey” instead of “eh,” and there are many other regional variations of English within Canada, just as there are within other English-speaking countries. But whether or not one uses “eh” (or “hey”), every English speaker knows dozens of ways to add a word or a phrase to the end of a statement so that it becomes a yes/no question. Questions formed in this way are called tag questions. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Tunnels of Moose Jaw

Underground legends

The first couple of times I visited Saskatchewan, where my wife’s family lives, it was winter. Temperatures hovered around –40°, making holiday shopping along the streets of downtown Saskatoon a challenge. Even bundled to the gills, we could barely stand to be outside for more than a few minutes. Morgen assured me that during the summer (or “mosquito season,” as it is affectionately known), the prairies of southern Saskatchewan took on an entirely different look and were quite hospitable to humans. But I was thinking, this is why they invented malls. Malls are good. Let’s go to the mall! We went to the mall.

Moosey in the Sky with Diamonds
I like to kid my wife about Saskatchewan: the monotonous flatness of the landscape, the dearth of trees, the nasty winter weather, the fact that the province’s slogan, “Land of Living Skies,” suggests there’s not much interesting about the land itself. Morgen, in turn, can kid me about western Pennsylvania (where I grew up), which has its own peculiarities. But even though Pennsylvania has no shortage of oddly named towns, Saskatchewan’s legendary town of Moose Jaw takes the cake. Although everyone in Canada has heard of Moose Jaw, it’s known more for its silly name than for any other characteristic. Which is a shame, because if you dig a little bit, you can find all sorts of interesting things in Moose Jaw. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Straw Bale Houses

The power of banding together

Several years ago, the company I worked for had a big Halloween celebration. One of my coworkers decided that a group of us needed to dress up as the Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf. So she worked for days sewing costumes for all of us, and even brought in plastic pig noses for us to wear. For an authentic touch, she asked that we also decorate our desks with the building materials featured in the story. I got the short straw (so to speak) and ended up making a pathetic mess by scattering straw all around my desk, and the “pig” who used sticks didn’t fare much better. But our colleague with the brick “house” simply printed out a huge brick pattern on a large-format color printer and wrapped it around his desk. In life as in the story, his design was clearly the best.

It is difficult to set aside the bias that straw is an inappropriate building material, even knowing that wolves lack the lung capacity to blow down a straw house. And yet people have been building sturdy, comfortable houses out of straw bales for more than a century. This building technique has been, shall we say, a bit slow to catch on—and is not without its limitations. But using straw as a building material turns out to have some interesting merits. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Esperanto

Artificial language for the masses

Like many people, I endured four years of high-school French only to find that I lacked the ability to order a croissant in a Paris bakery without making a fool of myself. I eventually got the hang of basic conversation in French, but then found myself traveling to places where Spanish, German, or Italian (for example) were spoken, and having to start all over again with the basics (“Where’s the bathroom?” “How much does this cost?” “Where have you sent my luggage?”). As much as I enjoy and appreciate linguistic diversity, it can make travel, trade, and diplomacy challenging at times.

In some heavily multilingual areas of the world, most people learn a lingua franca—a regional trade language—in addition to their mother tongue. It stands to reason, then, that this notion could be expanded more broadly. But when someone proposes English or French, say, as a trade language, objections inevitably arise. These languages are notoriously difficult to learn, with strange spellings and lots of grammatical rules and exceptions. But more importantly, they’re loaded with historical and cultural baggage. If your country—not mentioning any names—has been a rival of English- or French-speaking nations, you will likely not jump at the chance to spend long years learning a language with such unpleasant associations. The only hope for a truly universal language would seem to be an artificial one—a language that is designed to be free from cultural biases and easy to learn. This was precisely the goal of Esperanto. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Geodesic Domes

Building outside the box

Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past half century, you have probably encountered a geodesic dome at one time or another. They can be found on playgrounds, at amusement parks, and in museums; and any number of homes and public buildings are constructed using some variation of this structure. Depending on your tastes and disposition, you may think geodesic domes look cool, endearingly retro, or woefully unfashionable. But you may not know the story (and the logic) behind this sometimes-controversial design.

Bucky-ing Trends
R. Buckminster Fuller was one of the most prolific thinkers and inventors of the 20th century. He wrote numerous books, received dozens of patents, and worked tirelessly for decades to solve some of the world’s most vexing problems using the tools of engineering and common sense. For all his innovations, Fuller was a very practical man, and like most engineers he saw a great beauty in elegantly logical solutions—even if they defied tradition, aesthetics, or conventional wisdom. So when a housing crisis arose in the years following World War II, he set out to find the simplest and most effective solution, no matter how unusual it may be. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Performative Verbs

Doing as you say

In a sociolinguistics class years ago, each of the students had to complete a major project on the topic of their choice, and the professor met with each of us to discuss what sorts of things we were thinking of researching. I described some areas of interest, and my professor said, “You should read J.L. Austin’s How to Do Things with Words. I think it’s exactly the kind of thing you’re talking about.” I read the book, and although it was not at all relevant to the project I had in mind, it was quite interesting. The entire book was a treatise on performative verbs, which is to say, verbs whose action is accomplished merely by saying them.

I Speak, Therefore I Act
Performatives sound a bit mystical at first, like a spell or incantation. But in fact such verbs are quite commonplace. If you’ve ever said, “I promise” or “I apologize,” you have performed those actions by the simple act of saying them. You’re not talking about doing these things or stating that you’re doing them; you’re actually doing them. The same is true when you say, “I bet,” “I invite,” “I request,” or “I protest,” for example. There are countless other examples, such as: [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Ice Hotels

In-refrigerator rooms

When I first heard about an “ice hotel,” I thought it must be a joke. I’ve heard of igloos, of course, but that’s not really the image that comes to mind when I think hotel. Sure, there was the Bad Guy’s ice lair in the James Bond film “Die Another Day,” but that’s just fantasy, right? The thought that someone might really construct an entire hotel out of ice, rent rooms, and then repeat the process each year was almost too wacky to believe. Believe it—not only does it happen, it has now become the trendiest way to spend a winter vacation.

They’ve Got It Down Cold
The first ice hotel was built in 1989 in a village called Jukkasjärvi in northern Lapland, Sweden. That first year it was a modest, 60-square-meter igloo; this year, the structure measures over 4,000 square meters and has 85 rooms. Construction begins each year in October, and the hotel is open for guests from December through April (weather permitting). By summer the hotel has melted, but plans are already underway for next year’s bigger, better ice structure. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Spoonerisms

Sixing up mounds

One of my linguistics professors in grad school had a strange sense of humor that appealed to me greatly. He didn’t see a need to divide work and pleasure; exams regularly contained jokes, puns, and strange juxtapositions, and every class session was filled with laughter. When this professor needed to make up a word in an imaginary language to use as an example, he wouldn’t give it a common meaning like “mother” or “tree”; he’d instead gloss the word as “flagpole sitter,” “hubcap thief,” or something similarly odd. He constantly urged us not to take our homework too seriously and to ask annoying questions of the other professors. I think this lighthearted attitude helped us all to learn better, and it certainly brightened the classroom atmosphere.

How Near This
Class discussion had a remarkable tendency to stray from the planned lesson, though invariably it went in interesting (and linguistically useful) directions. One day, someone in the class mentioned the word metathesis, which is the phenomenon that occurs when two adjacent sounds are swapped (as in “aks” for “ask”). Without missing a beat, the professor said, “Oh yes, this reminds me of spoonerisms,” and proceeded to recite, rapidly and perfectly, the tale of the Mion and the Louse. We were stunned and delighted by his brilliant display of linguistic prowess. It’s not easy to make mistakes like that on purpose. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Origin of the Trophy Cup

Handing it to the winner

Having written several articles based on the theme “Throwing Down the Goblet,” I found myself wondering about trophies. Lots of major sporting competitions award the winning team a trophy in the shape of a cup (or, if you prefer, a bowl, chalice, or goblet)—the Stanley Cup, the America’s Cup, the World Cup, and so on. Trophy cups are also found quite often in collegiate sports, and Harry Potter fans will of course remember the House Cup as the highly coveted award for the house that has accumulated the most points during a given term. Often, though not always, tradition dictates that a single trophy cup be passed from one winning team to the next. In individual competitions, by contrast, trophy cups are much less common; designs are based more often on a human (or angelic) figure of some kind.

The Salad Fork of Victory
When you’re rooting for your team to win, say, the World Cup, it’s probably not especially important to you what the actual token of victory is shaped like. The important thing, most competitors and fans would agree, is simply to win—and to have some commemorative token. A cube or sphere or an inscribed toaster oven could just as easily serve this purpose, though without a doubt, larger, more elaborate, and costlier trophies give the winner something further to brag about. All I wanted to know was, why a cup? How did a cup, of all things, come to symbolize competitive victory? [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Cleopatra's Wager

The most expensive meal in history

A news article mentioned a hotel bar in New York whose drink menu includes a US$10,000 drink called “Martini on the Rock.” That works out to about $5 for the gin, vermouth, and olives—and $9,995 for the loose diamond sitting at the bottom of the glass. Patrons must order the drink three days in advance, and meet with a jeweler to pick out the perfect stone. The first person to order this drink paid a bit extra—$13,000—and instead of a loose stone, selected a 1.85-carat diamond engagement ring. (His girlfriend said yes.) Perhaps unknown to the hotel’s proprietors, this extravagant beverage has a fascinating historical precedent.

Et Tu, Cleo?
The year was 41 B.C. Mark Antony, one of the rulers of Rome, summoned Egyptian queen Cleopatra VII for an audience at Tarsus (in present-day Turkey). Antony ostensibly wanted Cleopatra to answer charges that she had aided Cassius, who had conspired with Brutus to assassinate Julius Caesar. But most people believe the real reason for the meeting was that Antony wanted Egyptian aid for an upcoming military campaign, and besides, he had the hots for Cleopatra. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

New Orleans Walking Tours

Ghosts, vampires, and history

The first time I visited New Orleans, I didn’t know anything about the city except that it was legendary for its Mardi Gras celebrations. But the more I learned about New Orleans, the more I came to love it. The history of the city is immensely colorful and complex. New Orleans has some of the most distinctive cuisine in the United States, a well-earned reputation as a center of music and culture, and a vibrant nightlife. But what I find most interesting about the city is its rich collection of legends and myths. The best way to learn about them is to take one of numerous walking tours of the French Quarter.

The Spanish French Quarter
The French Quarter—the focal point of the city for most tourists—is a well-defined area about 13 blocks by 7 blocks, bordered by the Mississippi River on the south. This was the original city of New Orleans, established by French settlers in 1718 and controlled by France until 1762, when it was given to Spain. The city remained under Spanish rule until the early 1800s, when it was secretly returned to France, only to be immediately turned over to the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase. The French Quarter is so named because for many years it was the district in which the majority of the French-speaking population lived. However, much of the original city was destroyed by massive fires in 1788 and 1794. Since Spain was in control during that time, the new buildings for the most part reflected Spanish architecture, and that is what survives today as the French Quarter. Most buildings are only three or four stories high. Wrought-iron balconies extend over sidewalks in the business district, and louvered shutters cover most windows and doors. The French Quarter has the feeling of being very old—for a North American city—largely because of strict construction rules designed to protect the historical character of the buildings. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Paris Sewers

Exploring the dark underbelly of the City of Light

Ah, Paris. It’s one of my very favorite places, not least because its ITSKI (Interesting Things per Square Kilometer Index) is off the scale. There are, of course, the very touristy sights like the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, and Notre Dame, as well as thousands of cafés, shops, and bakeries that tantalize and inspire. There are also a great many lesser-known places of historical interest, including one where I spent an afternoon on each of my past two visits to the city: the sewer system. OK, the aroma wasn’t quite as pleasing as that of a fresh baguette, but the Paris sewer system—part of which has been turned into a museum that’s open to the public—is vast, intricate, and surprising in many ways. You may think of a sewer as nothing more than a conduit for waste, but in Paris, there’s more to the sewers than meets the nose.

The tunnels that make up the Paris sewer system are mostly very large—almost the size of a subway tunnel. In most cases a central channel, wide enough and deep enough for a boat, carries waste and runoff water; on both sides are broad, paved walkways with enough headroom for most people to walk comfortably. Overhead are pipes that supply the city’s fresh water, telecommunications cables, and pneumatic tubes, among other things. But it’s the length and complexity of the tunnels that make them so intriguing: they almost exactly follow the layout of the streets above—in fact, every corner within the sewers has a street sign on it that mirrors the one on the surface. Where a wide boulevard runs on the surface, a wide sewer tunnel (or two) runs beneath; smaller streets have smaller sewers, and even side streets and alleys are duplicated underground. In all, there are about 1,300 miles (2,100km) of sewer tunnels underneath Paris. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Sutro Baths

Diving into the past

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

At the intersection of the Boulevard St. Michel and the Boulevard St. Germain, in the heart of Paris’s Latin Quarter, a ruin of brick and stone walls, vaguely recognizable as rooms or chambers, is being unearthed. This spot was once the site of Roman public baths, a place of leisure for local residents in the first to third century A.D. These baths were destroyed in the third century, and the property was later bought in 1330 by the Abbot of Cluny, who built a new structure alongside the ruins. During the French Revolution, the property passed out of the church’s hands, and had various owners (one of whom covered the bath ruins in six feet of soil) before being bought by Alexandre du Sommerard, a collector of medieval antiquities. Today, both of these sites are part of the Musée National du Moyen Age, a museum dedicated to the arts and history of the Middle Ages.

Besides the relative novelty of visiting ancient (and surprisingly intact) Roman ruins below the streets of a 21st-century city, the baths give a fascinating insight into Roman culture. These baths consisted of a series of pools: the tepidarium (lukewarm), caldarium (hot), and frigidarium (cold). Guests normally moved from the lukewarm pool to the hot pool, then to the cold before retiring to rooms designed for socializing with other guests. Roman baths of this type were open to everyone, and were an important part of life in ancient Roman towns. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Printing Skin Tissue

Human organs from 3-D printers

An earlier article here covered 3-D printers, which use modified inkjet technology to create solid objects with extremely complex shapes. The printers use a variety of techniques to solidify arbitrary areas on the surface of a powdered substrate, which supports the object as it is built up layer by layer. Designers commonly use 3-D printers for prototyping things like consumer electronic products, ensuring that they will be manufacturable before expensive metal molds are created to enable mass production. I ran into an old acquaintance the day that article ran who had never heard of Interesting Thing of the Day, so I told him about the site. He asked me what that day’s topic was, and I happily described the 3-D printers. He said, “Oh yeah, I know about those. Did you know they’re also using them to ‘print’ human tissue?” Um…no, I had no idea. It turns out that the humble inkjet printer has quite a few tricks up its sleeve—including, incredibly, the capability of manufacturing living skin and other organs.

Cell Mates
Growing individual human cells is not especially difficult. Take a sample of healthy cells, provide them with the right nutrients and environment, and they will grow and multiply. When multiple tissue cells are placed in close proximity to each other, they have a tendency to fuse together. Because of this phenomenon, hospitals can “grow” new skin to be used as grafts for burn patients using the patient’s own skin cells. However, this technique does have significant limitations. In particular, the skin cannot be made very thick because there’s no way to get blood to deeper cells—the process grows a homogeneous sheet of skin without the essential network of blood vessels, not to mention pores and other minute structures. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Tagmemics

The linguistic theory of everything

When I was studying linguistics in graduate school, the question people asked me most often was, “So how many languages can you speak?” I’d roll my eyes and say, “One, almost.” I’d then try to explain that I usually get by pretty well in English, that I can order food in a French restaurant without embarrassing myself, and that I’ve picked up a smattering of phrases in half a dozen other languages—but that’s pretty much it (unless you want to count computer languages or ancient Greek and Hebrew, of which I know just enough to mistranslate an inscription here and there). Linguists, I would say, are not necessarily polyglots; the study of linguistics is not about learning a bunch of languages but rather about understanding the nature of language generally: how the brain creates and interprets it, how children learn it, how it functions in society, how to model it computationally, that sort of thing. (At this point listeners would generally nod, try valiantly to suppress a yawn, and change the subject.)

In the course of my studies, I came across a fringe linguistic theory that is, even by the most generous standards, far from being generally accepted, or even respected. The theory is known as tagmemics; its inventor and primary proponent, the late Dr. Kenneth L. Pike, was on my thesis committee. So I got to spend some quality time getting to know the man and his theory—which, though I argued forcefully against its shortcomings, is nevertheless quite interesting. It’s the one linguistic theory that ordinary, nonacademic human beings have a reasonable chance of comprehending without months of study. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Tag Questions

You know what this is about, don’t you?

People who want to make fun of the Canadian dialect of English invariably start with one of its two most idiosyncratic features. The pronunciation of the diphthong “ou,” of course, is one of them—in words like out and about, Americans exaggerate both the gliding and rounding of the vowels so that it sounds like the “ow” in power, whereas the stereotypical Canadian pronunciation is closer to oat and a boat. I know lots of Canadians who protest this characterization, pointing out that Americans butcher the language much more egregiously. They may say, “Every dialect of English has its faults, eh?” This is the second oft-ridiculed peculiarity of Canadian English: turning a statement into a question by adding the word “eh” at the end, which means, approximately, “Isn’t that so?”

Needless to say, not all Canadians fit the stereotype—my wife, for example, rarely uses “eh,” just as I avoid most of the influences of Pittsburghese. Some of her family members from Saskatchewan, on the other hand, say “hey” instead of “eh,” and there are many other regional variations of English within Canada, just as there are within other English-speaking countries. But whether or not one uses “eh” (or “hey”), every English speaker knows dozens of ways to add a word or a phrase to the end of a statement so that it becomes a yes/no question. Questions formed in this way are called tag questions. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Tunnels of Moose Jaw

Underground legends

The first couple of times I visited Saskatchewan, where my wife’s family lives, it was winter. Temperatures hovered around –40°, making holiday shopping along the streets of downtown Saskatoon a challenge. Even bundled to the gills, we could barely stand to be outside for more than a few minutes. Morgen assured me that during the summer (or “mosquito season,” as it is affectionately known), the prairies of southern Saskatchewan took on an entirely different look and were quite hospitable to humans. But I was thinking, this is why they invented malls. Malls are good. Let’s go to the mall! We went to the mall.

Moosey in the Sky with Diamonds
I like to kid my wife about Saskatchewan: the monotonous flatness of the landscape, the dearth of trees, the nasty winter weather, the fact that the province’s slogan, “Land of Living Skies,” suggests there’s not much interesting about the land itself. Morgen, in turn, can kid me about western Pennsylvania (where I grew up), which has its own peculiarities. But even though Pennsylvania has no shortage of oddly named towns, Saskatchewan’s legendary town of Moose Jaw takes the cake. Although everyone in Canada has heard of Moose Jaw, it’s known more for its silly name than for any other characteristic. Which is a shame, because if you dig a little bit, you can find all sorts of interesting things in Moose Jaw. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Straw Bale Houses

The power of banding together

Several years ago, the company I worked for had a big Halloween celebration. One of my coworkers decided that a group of us needed to dress up as the Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf. So she worked for days sewing costumes for all of us, and even brought in plastic pig noses for us to wear. For an authentic touch, she asked that we also decorate our desks with the building materials featured in the story. I got the short straw (so to speak) and ended up making a pathetic mess by scattering straw all around my desk, and the “pig” who used sticks didn’t fare much better. But our colleague with the brick “house” simply printed out a huge brick pattern on a large-format color printer and wrapped it around his desk. In life as in the story, his design was clearly the best.

It is difficult to set aside the bias that straw is an inappropriate building material, even knowing that wolves lack the lung capacity to blow down a straw house. And yet people have been building sturdy, comfortable houses out of straw bales for more than a century. This building technique has been, shall we say, a bit slow to catch on—and is not without its limitations. But using straw as a building material turns out to have some interesting merits. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Esperanto

Artificial language for the masses

Like many people, I endured four years of high-school French only to find that I lacked the ability to order a croissant in a Paris bakery without making a fool of myself. I eventually got the hang of basic conversation in French, but then found myself traveling to places where Spanish, German, or Italian (for example) were spoken, and having to start all over again with the basics (“Where’s the bathroom?” “How much does this cost?” “Where have you sent my luggage?”). As much as I enjoy and appreciate linguistic diversity, it can make travel, trade, and diplomacy challenging at times.

In some heavily multilingual areas of the world, most people learn a lingua franca—a regional trade language—in addition to their mother tongue. It stands to reason, then, that this notion could be expanded more broadly. But when someone proposes English or French, say, as a trade language, objections inevitably arise. These languages are notoriously difficult to learn, with strange spellings and lots of grammatical rules and exceptions. But more importantly, they’re loaded with historical and cultural baggage. If your country—not mentioning any names—has been a rival of English- or French-speaking nations, you will likely not jump at the chance to spend long years learning a language with such unpleasant associations. The only hope for a truly universal language would seem to be an artificial one—a language that is designed to be free from cultural biases and easy to learn. This was precisely the goal of Esperanto. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Geodesic Domes

Building outside the box

Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past half century, you have probably encountered a geodesic dome at one time or another. They can be found on playgrounds, at amusement parks, and in museums; and any number of homes and public buildings are constructed using some variation of this structure. Depending on your tastes and disposition, you may think geodesic domes look cool, endearingly retro, or woefully unfashionable. But you may not know the story (and the logic) behind this sometimes-controversial design.

Bucky-ing Trends
R. Buckminster Fuller was one of the most prolific thinkers and inventors of the 20th century. He wrote numerous books, received dozens of patents, and worked tirelessly for decades to solve some of the world’s most vexing problems using the tools of engineering and common sense. For all his innovations, Fuller was a very practical man, and like most engineers he saw a great beauty in elegantly logical solutions—even if they defied tradition, aesthetics, or conventional wisdom. So when a housing crisis arose in the years following World War II, he set out to find the simplest and most effective solution, no matter how unusual it may be. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Performative Verbs

Doing as you say

In a sociolinguistics class years ago, each of the students had to complete a major project on the topic of their choice, and the professor met with each of us to discuss what sorts of things we were thinking of researching. I described some areas of interest, and my professor said, “You should read J.L. Austin’s How to Do Things with Words. I think it’s exactly the kind of thing you’re talking about.” I read the book, and although it was not at all relevant to the project I had in mind, it was quite interesting. The entire book was a treatise on performative verbs, which is to say, verbs whose action is accomplished merely by saying them.

I Speak, Therefore I Act
Performatives sound a bit mystical at first, like a spell or incantation. But in fact such verbs are quite commonplace. If you’ve ever said, “I promise” or “I apologize,” you have performed those actions by the simple act of saying them. You’re not talking about doing these things or stating that you’re doing them; you’re actually doing them. The same is true when you say, “I bet,” “I invite,” “I request,” or “I protest,” for example. There are countless other examples, such as: [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Ice Hotels

In-refrigerator rooms

When I first heard about an “ice hotel,” I thought it must be a joke. I’ve heard of igloos, of course, but that’s not really the image that comes to mind when I think hotel. Sure, there was the Bad Guy’s ice lair in the James Bond film “Die Another Day,” but that’s just fantasy, right? The thought that someone might really construct an entire hotel out of ice, rent rooms, and then repeat the process each year was almost too wacky to believe. Believe it—not only does it happen, it has now become the trendiest way to spend a winter vacation.

They’ve Got It Down Cold
The first ice hotel was built in 1989 in a village called Jukkasjärvi in northern Lapland, Sweden. That first year it was a modest, 60-square-meter igloo; this year, the structure measures over 4,000 square meters and has 85 rooms. Construction begins each year in October, and the hotel is open for guests from December through April (weather permitting). By summer the hotel has melted, but plans are already underway for next year’s bigger, better ice structure. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Spoonerisms

Sixing up mounds

One of my linguistics professors in grad school had a strange sense of humor that appealed to me greatly. He didn’t see a need to divide work and pleasure; exams regularly contained jokes, puns, and strange juxtapositions, and every class session was filled with laughter. When this professor needed to make up a word in an imaginary language to use as an example, he wouldn’t give it a common meaning like “mother” or “tree”; he’d instead gloss the word as “flagpole sitter,” “hubcap thief,” or something similarly odd. He constantly urged us not to take our homework too seriously and to ask annoying questions of the other professors. I think this lighthearted attitude helped us all to learn better, and it certainly brightened the classroom atmosphere.

How Near This
Class discussion had a remarkable tendency to stray from the planned lesson, though invariably it went in interesting (and linguistically useful) directions. One day, someone in the class mentioned the word metathesis, which is the phenomenon that occurs when two adjacent sounds are swapped (as in “aks” for “ask”). Without missing a beat, the professor said, “Oh yes, this reminds me of spoonerisms,” and proceeded to recite, rapidly and perfectly, the tale of the Mion and the Louse. We were stunned and delighted by his brilliant display of linguistic prowess. It’s not easy to make mistakes like that on purpose. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Origin of the Trophy Cup

Handing it to the winner

Having written several articles based on the theme “Throwing Down the Goblet,” I found myself wondering about trophies. Lots of major sporting competitions award the winning team a trophy in the shape of a cup (or, if you prefer, a bowl, chalice, or goblet)—the Stanley Cup, the America’s Cup, the World Cup, and so on. Trophy cups are also found quite often in collegiate sports, and Harry Potter fans will of course remember the House Cup as the highly coveted award for the house that has accumulated the most points during a given term. Often, though not always, tradition dictates that a single trophy cup be passed from one winning team to the next. In individual competitions, by contrast, trophy cups are much less common; designs are based more often on a human (or angelic) figure of some kind.

The Salad Fork of Victory
When you’re rooting for your team to win, say, the World Cup, it’s probably not especially important to you what the actual token of victory is shaped like. The important thing, most competitors and fans would agree, is simply to win—and to have some commemorative token. A cube or sphere or an inscribed toaster oven could just as easily serve this purpose, though without a doubt, larger, more elaborate, and costlier trophies give the winner something further to brag about. All I wanted to know was, why a cup? How did a cup, of all things, come to symbolize competitive victory? [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Cleopatra's Wager

The most expensive meal in history

A news article mentioned a hotel bar in New York whose drink menu includes a US$10,000 drink called “Martini on the Rock.” That works out to about $5 for the gin, vermouth, and olives—and $9,995 for the loose diamond sitting at the bottom of the glass. Patrons must order the drink three days in advance, and meet with a jeweler to pick out the perfect stone. The first person to order this drink paid a bit extra—$13,000—and instead of a loose stone, selected a 1.85-carat diamond engagement ring. (His girlfriend said yes.) Perhaps unknown to the hotel’s proprietors, this extravagant beverage has a fascinating historical precedent.

Et Tu, Cleo?
The year was 41 B.C. Mark Antony, one of the rulers of Rome, summoned Egyptian queen Cleopatra VII for an audience at Tarsus (in present-day Turkey). Antony ostensibly wanted Cleopatra to answer charges that she had aided Cassius, who had conspired with Brutus to assassinate Julius Caesar. But most people believe the real reason for the meeting was that Antony wanted Egyptian aid for an upcoming military campaign, and besides, he had the hots for Cleopatra. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

New Orleans Walking Tours

Ghosts, vampires, and history

The first time I visited New Orleans, I didn’t know anything about the city except that it was legendary for its Mardi Gras celebrations. But the more I learned about New Orleans, the more I came to love it. The history of the city is immensely colorful and complex. New Orleans has some of the most distinctive cuisine in the United States, a well-earned reputation as a center of music and culture, and a vibrant nightlife. But what I find most interesting about the city is its rich collection of legends and myths. The best way to learn about them is to take one of numerous walking tours of the French Quarter.

The Spanish French Quarter
The French Quarter—the focal point of the city for most tourists—is a well-defined area about 13 blocks by 7 blocks, bordered by the Mississippi River on the south. This was the original city of New Orleans, established by French settlers in 1718 and controlled by France until 1762, when it was given to Spain. The city remained under Spanish rule until the early 1800s, when it was secretly returned to France, only to be immediately turned over to the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase. The French Quarter is so named because for many years it was the district in which the majority of the French-speaking population lived. However, much of the original city was destroyed by massive fires in 1788 and 1794. Since Spain was in control during that time, the new buildings for the most part reflected Spanish architecture, and that is what survives today as the French Quarter. Most buildings are only three or four stories high. Wrought-iron balconies extend over sidewalks in the business district, and louvered shutters cover most windows and doors. The French Quarter has the feeling of being very old—for a North American city—largely because of strict construction rules designed to protect the historical character of the buildings. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Paris Sewers

Exploring the dark underbelly of the City of Light

Ah, Paris. It’s one of my very favorite places, not least because its ITSKI (Interesting Things per Square Kilometer Index) is off the scale. There are, of course, the very touristy sights like the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, and Notre Dame, as well as thousands of cafés, shops, and bakeries that tantalize and inspire. There are also a great many lesser-known places of historical interest, including one where I spent an afternoon on each of my past two visits to the city: the sewer system. OK, the aroma wasn’t quite as pleasing as that of a fresh baguette, but the Paris sewer system—part of which has been turned into a museum that’s open to the public—is vast, intricate, and surprising in many ways. You may think of a sewer as nothing more than a conduit for waste, but in Paris, there’s more to the sewers than meets the nose.

The tunnels that make up the Paris sewer system are mostly very large—almost the size of a subway tunnel. In most cases a central channel, wide enough and deep enough for a boat, carries waste and runoff water; on both sides are broad, paved walkways with enough headroom for most people to walk comfortably. Overhead are pipes that supply the city’s fresh water, telecommunications cables, and pneumatic tubes, among other things. But it’s the length and complexity of the tunnels that make them so intriguing: they almost exactly follow the layout of the streets above—in fact, every corner within the sewers has a street sign on it that mirrors the one on the surface. Where a wide boulevard runs on the surface, a wide sewer tunnel (or two) runs beneath; smaller streets have smaller sewers, and even side streets and alleys are duplicated underground. In all, there are about 1,300 miles (2,100km) of sewer tunnels underneath Paris. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Sutro Baths

Diving into the past

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

At the intersection of the Boulevard St. Michel and the Boulevard St. Germain, in the heart of Paris’s Latin Quarter, a ruin of brick and stone walls, vaguely recognizable as rooms or chambers, is being unearthed. This spot was once the site of Roman public baths, a place of leisure for local residents in the first to third century A.D. These baths were destroyed in the third century, and the property was later bought in 1330 by the Abbot of Cluny, who built a new structure alongside the ruins. During the French Revolution, the property passed out of the church’s hands, and had various owners (one of whom covered the bath ruins in six feet of soil) before being bought by Alexandre du Sommerard, a collector of medieval antiquities. Today, both of these sites are part of the Musée National du Moyen Age, a museum dedicated to the arts and history of the Middle Ages.

Besides the relative novelty of visiting ancient (and surprisingly intact) Roman ruins below the streets of a 21st-century city, the baths give a fascinating insight into Roman culture. These baths consisted of a series of pools: the tepidarium (lukewarm), caldarium (hot), and frigidarium (cold). Guests normally moved from the lukewarm pool to the hot pool, then to the cold before retiring to rooms designed for socializing with other guests. Roman baths of this type were open to everyone, and were an important part of life in ancient Roman towns. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Printing Skin Tissue

Human organs from 3-D printers

An earlier article here covered 3-D printers, which use modified inkjet technology to create solid objects with extremely complex shapes. The printers use a variety of techniques to solidify arbitrary areas on the surface of a powdered substrate, which supports the object as it is built up layer by layer. Designers commonly use 3-D printers for prototyping things like consumer electronic products, ensuring that they will be manufacturable before expensive metal molds are created to enable mass production. I ran into an old acquaintance the day that article ran who had never heard of Interesting Thing of the Day, so I told him about the site. He asked me what that day’s topic was, and I happily described the 3-D printers. He said, “Oh yeah, I know about those. Did you know they’re also using them to ‘print’ human tissue?” Um…no, I had no idea. It turns out that the humble inkjet printer has quite a few tricks up its sleeve—including, incredibly, the capability of manufacturing living skin and other organs.

Cell Mates
Growing individual human cells is not especially difficult. Take a sample of healthy cells, provide them with the right nutrients and environment, and they will grow and multiply. When multiple tissue cells are placed in close proximity to each other, they have a tendency to fuse together. Because of this phenomenon, hospitals can “grow” new skin to be used as grafts for burn patients using the patient’s own skin cells. However, this technique does have significant limitations. In particular, the skin cannot be made very thick because there’s no way to get blood to deeper cells—the process grows a homogeneous sheet of skin without the essential network of blood vessels, not to mention pores and other minute structures. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Tagmemics

The linguistic theory of everything

When I was studying linguistics in graduate school, the question people asked me most often was, “So how many languages can you speak?” I’d roll my eyes and say, “One, almost.” I’d then try to explain that I usually get by pretty well in English, that I can order food in a French restaurant without embarrassing myself, and that I’ve picked up a smattering of phrases in half a dozen other languages—but that’s pretty much it (unless you want to count computer languages or ancient Greek and Hebrew, of which I know just enough to mistranslate an inscription here and there). Linguists, I would say, are not necessarily polyglots; the study of linguistics is not about learning a bunch of languages but rather about understanding the nature of language generally: how the brain creates and interprets it, how children learn it, how it functions in society, how to model it computationally, that sort of thing. (At this point listeners would generally nod, try valiantly to suppress a yawn, and change the subject.)

In the course of my studies, I came across a fringe linguistic theory that is, even by the most generous standards, far from being generally accepted, or even respected. The theory is known as tagmemics; its inventor and primary proponent, the late Dr. Kenneth L. Pike, was on my thesis committee. So I got to spend some quality time getting to know the man and his theory—which, though I argued forcefully against its shortcomings, is nevertheless quite interesting. It’s the one linguistic theory that ordinary, nonacademic human beings have a reasonable chance of comprehending without months of study. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Tag Questions

You know what this is about, don’t you?

People who want to make fun of the Canadian dialect of English invariably start with one of its two most idiosyncratic features. The pronunciation of the diphthong “ou,” of course, is one of them—in words like out and about, Americans exaggerate both the gliding and rounding of the vowels so that it sounds like the “ow” in power, whereas the stereotypical Canadian pronunciation is closer to oat and a boat. I know lots of Canadians who protest this characterization, pointing out that Americans butcher the language much more egregiously. They may say, “Every dialect of English has its faults, eh?” This is the second oft-ridiculed peculiarity of Canadian English: turning a statement into a question by adding the word “eh” at the end, which means, approximately, “Isn’t that so?”

Needless to say, not all Canadians fit the stereotype—my wife, for example, rarely uses “eh,” just as I avoid most of the influences of Pittsburghese. Some of her family members from Saskatchewan, on the other hand, say “hey” instead of “eh,” and there are many other regional variations of English within Canada, just as there are within other English-speaking countries. But whether or not one uses “eh” (or “hey”), every English speaker knows dozens of ways to add a word or a phrase to the end of a statement so that it becomes a yes/no question. Questions formed in this way are called tag questions. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Tunnels of Moose Jaw

Underground legends

The first couple of times I visited Saskatchewan, where my wife’s family lives, it was winter. Temperatures hovered around –40°, making holiday shopping along the streets of downtown Saskatoon a challenge. Even bundled to the gills, we could barely stand to be outside for more than a few minutes. Morgen assured me that during the summer (or “mosquito season,” as it is affectionately known), the prairies of southern Saskatchewan took on an entirely different look and were quite hospitable to humans. But I was thinking, this is why they invented malls. Malls are good. Let’s go to the mall! We went to the mall.

Moosey in the Sky with Diamonds
I like to kid my wife about Saskatchewan: the monotonous flatness of the landscape, the dearth of trees, the nasty winter weather, the fact that the province’s slogan, “Land of Living Skies,” suggests there’s not much interesting about the land itself. Morgen, in turn, can kid me about western Pennsylvania (where I grew up), which has its own peculiarities. But even though Pennsylvania has no shortage of oddly named towns, Saskatchewan’s legendary town of Moose Jaw takes the cake. Although everyone in Canada has heard of Moose Jaw, it’s known more for its silly name than for any other characteristic. Which is a shame, because if you dig a little bit, you can find all sorts of interesting things in Moose Jaw. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Straw Bale Houses

The power of banding together

Several years ago, the company I worked for had a big Halloween celebration. One of my coworkers decided that a group of us needed to dress up as the Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf. So she worked for days sewing costumes for all of us, and even brought in plastic pig noses for us to wear. For an authentic touch, she asked that we also decorate our desks with the building materials featured in the story. I got the short straw (so to speak) and ended up making a pathetic mess by scattering straw all around my desk, and the “pig” who used sticks didn’t fare much better. But our colleague with the brick “house” simply printed out a huge brick pattern on a large-format color printer and wrapped it around his desk. In life as in the story, his design was clearly the best.

It is difficult to set aside the bias that straw is an inappropriate building material, even knowing that wolves lack the lung capacity to blow down a straw house. And yet people have been building sturdy, comfortable houses out of straw bales for more than a century. This building technique has been, shall we say, a bit slow to catch on—and is not without its limitations. But using straw as a building material turns out to have some interesting merits. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Esperanto

Artificial language for the masses

Like many people, I endured four years of high-school French only to find that I lacked the ability to order a croissant in a Paris bakery without making a fool of myself. I eventually got the hang of basic conversation in French, but then found myself traveling to places where Spanish, German, or Italian (for example) were spoken, and having to start all over again with the basics (“Where’s the bathroom?” “How much does this cost?” “Where have you sent my luggage?”). As much as I enjoy and appreciate linguistic diversity, it can make travel, trade, and diplomacy challenging at times.

In some heavily multilingual areas of the world, most people learn a lingua franca—a regional trade language—in addition to their mother tongue. It stands to reason, then, that this notion could be expanded more broadly. But when someone proposes English or French, say, as a trade language, objections inevitably arise. These languages are notoriously difficult to learn, with strange spellings and lots of grammatical rules and exceptions. But more importantly, they’re loaded with historical and cultural baggage. If your country—not mentioning any names—has been a rival of English- or French-speaking nations, you will likely not jump at the chance to spend long years learning a language with such unpleasant associations. The only hope for a truly universal language would seem to be an artificial one—a language that is designed to be free from cultural biases and easy to learn. This was precisely the goal of Esperanto. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Geodesic Domes

Building outside the box

Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past half century, you have probably encountered a geodesic dome at one time or another. They can be found on playgrounds, at amusement parks, and in museums; and any number of homes and public buildings are constructed using some variation of this structure. Depending on your tastes and disposition, you may think geodesic domes look cool, endearingly retro, or woefully unfashionable. But you may not know the story (and the logic) behind this sometimes-controversial design.

Bucky-ing Trends
R. Buckminster Fuller was one of the most prolific thinkers and inventors of the 20th century. He wrote numerous books, received dozens of patents, and worked tirelessly for decades to solve some of the world’s most vexing problems using the tools of engineering and common sense. For all his innovations, Fuller was a very practical man, and like most engineers he saw a great beauty in elegantly logical solutions—even if they defied tradition, aesthetics, or conventional wisdom. So when a housing crisis arose in the years following World War II, he set out to find the simplest and most effective solution, no matter how unusual it may be. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Performative Verbs

Doing as you say

In a sociolinguistics class years ago, each of the students had to complete a major project on the topic of their choice, and the professor met with each of us to discuss what sorts of things we were thinking of researching. I described some areas of interest, and my professor said, “You should read J.L. Austin’s How to Do Things with Words. I think it’s exactly the kind of thing you’re talking about.” I read the book, and although it was not at all relevant to the project I had in mind, it was quite interesting. The entire book was a treatise on performative verbs, which is to say, verbs whose action is accomplished merely by saying them.

I Speak, Therefore I Act
Performatives sound a bit mystical at first, like a spell or incantation. But in fact such verbs are quite commonplace. If you’ve ever said, “I promise” or “I apologize,” you have performed those actions by the simple act of saying them. You’re not talking about doing these things or stating that you’re doing them; you’re actually doing them. The same is true when you say, “I bet,” “I invite,” “I request,” or “I protest,” for example. There are countless other examples, such as: [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Ice Hotels

In-refrigerator rooms

When I first heard about an “ice hotel,” I thought it must be a joke. I’ve heard of igloos, of course, but that’s not really the image that comes to mind when I think hotel. Sure, there was the Bad Guy’s ice lair in the James Bond film “Die Another Day,” but that’s just fantasy, right? The thought that someone might really construct an entire hotel out of ice, rent rooms, and then repeat the process each year was almost too wacky to believe. Believe it—not only does it happen, it has now become the trendiest way to spend a winter vacation.

They’ve Got It Down Cold
The first ice hotel was built in 1989 in a village called Jukkasjärvi in northern Lapland, Sweden. That first year it was a modest, 60-square-meter igloo; this year, the structure measures over 4,000 square meters and has 85 rooms. Construction begins each year in October, and the hotel is open for guests from December through April (weather permitting). By summer the hotel has melted, but plans are already underway for next year’s bigger, better ice structure. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Spoonerisms

Sixing up mounds

One of my linguistics professors in grad school had a strange sense of humor that appealed to me greatly. He didn’t see a need to divide work and pleasure; exams regularly contained jokes, puns, and strange juxtapositions, and every class session was filled with laughter. When this professor needed to make up a word in an imaginary language to use as an example, he wouldn’t give it a common meaning like “mother” or “tree”; he’d instead gloss the word as “flagpole sitter,” “hubcap thief,” or something similarly odd. He constantly urged us not to take our homework too seriously and to ask annoying questions of the other professors. I think this lighthearted attitude helped us all to learn better, and it certainly brightened the classroom atmosphere.

How Near This
Class discussion had a remarkable tendency to stray from the planned lesson, though invariably it went in interesting (and linguistically useful) directions. One day, someone in the class mentioned the word metathesis, which is the phenomenon that occurs when two adjacent sounds are swapped (as in “aks” for “ask”). Without missing a beat, the professor said, “Oh yes, this reminds me of spoonerisms,” and proceeded to recite, rapidly and perfectly, the tale of the Mion and the Louse. We were stunned and delighted by his brilliant display of linguistic prowess. It’s not easy to make mistakes like that on purpose. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Origin of the Trophy Cup

Handing it to the winner

Having written several articles based on the theme “Throwing Down the Goblet,” I found myself wondering about trophies. Lots of major sporting competitions award the winning team a trophy in the shape of a cup (or, if you prefer, a bowl, chalice, or goblet)—the Stanley Cup, the America’s Cup, the World Cup, and so on. Trophy cups are also found quite often in collegiate sports, and Harry Potter fans will of course remember the House Cup as the highly coveted award for the house that has accumulated the most points during a given term. Often, though not always, tradition dictates that a single trophy cup be passed from one winning team to the next. In individual competitions, by contrast, trophy cups are much less common; designs are based more often on a human (or angelic) figure of some kind.

The Salad Fork of Victory
When you’re rooting for your team to win, say, the World Cup, it’s probably not especially important to you what the actual token of victory is shaped like. The important thing, most competitors and fans would agree, is simply to win—and to have some commemorative token. A cube or sphere or an inscribed toaster oven could just as easily serve this purpose, though without a doubt, larger, more elaborate, and costlier trophies give the winner something further to brag about. All I wanted to know was, why a cup? How did a cup, of all things, come to symbolize competitive victory? [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Cleopatra's Wager

The most expensive meal in history

A news article mentioned a hotel bar in New York whose drink menu includes a US$10,000 drink called “Martini on the Rock.” That works out to about $5 for the gin, vermouth, and olives—and $9,995 for the loose diamond sitting at the bottom of the glass. Patrons must order the drink three days in advance, and meet with a jeweler to pick out the perfect stone. The first person to order this drink paid a bit extra—$13,000—and instead of a loose stone, selected a 1.85-carat diamond engagement ring. (His girlfriend said yes.) Perhaps unknown to the hotel’s proprietors, this extravagant beverage has a fascinating historical precedent.

Et Tu, Cleo?
The year was 41 B.C. Mark Antony, one of the rulers of Rome, summoned Egyptian queen Cleopatra VII for an audience at Tarsus (in present-day Turkey). Antony ostensibly wanted Cleopatra to answer charges that she had aided Cassius, who had conspired with Brutus to assassinate Julius Caesar. But most people believe the real reason for the meeting was that Antony wanted Egyptian aid for an upcoming military campaign, and besides, he had the hots for Cleopatra. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

New Orleans Walking Tours

Ghosts, vampires, and history

The first time I visited New Orleans, I didn’t know anything about the city except that it was legendary for its Mardi Gras celebrations. But the more I learned about New Orleans, the more I came to love it. The history of the city is immensely colorful and complex. New Orleans has some of the most distinctive cuisine in the United States, a well-earned reputation as a center of music and culture, and a vibrant nightlife. But what I find most interesting about the city is its rich collection of legends and myths. The best way to learn about them is to take one of numerous walking tours of the French Quarter.

The Spanish French Quarter
The French Quarter—the focal point of the city for most tourists—is a well-defined area about 13 blocks by 7 blocks, bordered by the Mississippi River on the south. This was the original city of New Orleans, established by French settlers in 1718 and controlled by France until 1762, when it was given to Spain. The city remained under Spanish rule until the early 1800s, when it was secretly returned to France, only to be immediately turned over to the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase. The French Quarter is so named because for many years it was the district in which the majority of the French-speaking population lived. However, much of the original city was destroyed by massive fires in 1788 and 1794. Since Spain was in control during that time, the new buildings for the most part reflected Spanish architecture, and that is what survives today as the French Quarter. Most buildings are only three or four stories high. Wrought-iron balconies extend over sidewalks in the business district, and louvered shutters cover most windows and doors. The French Quarter has the feeling of being very old—for a North American city—largely because of strict construction rules designed to protect the historical character of the buildings. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Paris Sewers

Exploring the dark underbelly of the City of Light

Ah, Paris. It’s one of my very favorite places, not least because its ITSKI (Interesting Things per Square Kilometer Index) is off the scale. There are, of course, the very touristy sights like the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, and Notre Dame, as well as thousands of cafés, shops, and bakeries that tantalize and inspire. There are also a great many lesser-known places of historical interest, including one where I spent an afternoon on each of my past two visits to the city: the sewer system. OK, the aroma wasn’t quite as pleasing as that of a fresh baguette, but the Paris sewer system—part of which has been turned into a museum that’s open to the public—is vast, intricate, and surprising in many ways. You may think of a sewer as nothing more than a conduit for waste, but in Paris, there’s more to the sewers than meets the nose.

The tunnels that make up the Paris sewer system are mostly very large—almost the size of a subway tunnel. In most cases a central channel, wide enough and deep enough for a boat, carries waste and runoff water; on both sides are broad, paved walkways with enough headroom for most people to walk comfortably. Overhead are pipes that supply the city’s fresh water, telecommunications cables, and pneumatic tubes, among other things. But it’s the length and complexity of the tunnels that make them so intriguing: they almost exactly follow the layout of the streets above—in fact, every corner within the sewers has a street sign on it that mirrors the one on the surface. Where a wide boulevard runs on the surface, a wide sewer tunnel (or two) runs beneath; smaller streets have smaller sewers, and even side streets and alleys are duplicated underground. In all, there are about 1,300 miles (2,100km) of sewer tunnels underneath Paris. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Sutro Baths

Diving into the past

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

At the intersection of the Boulevard St. Michel and the Boulevard St. Germain, in the heart of Paris’s Latin Quarter, a ruin of brick and stone walls, vaguely recognizable as rooms or chambers, is being unearthed. This spot was once the site of Roman public baths, a place of leisure for local residents in the first to third century A.D. These baths were destroyed in the third century, and the property was later bought in 1330 by the Abbot of Cluny, who built a new structure alongside the ruins. During the French Revolution, the property passed out of the church’s hands, and had various owners (one of whom covered the bath ruins in six feet of soil) before being bought by Alexandre du Sommerard, a collector of medieval antiquities. Today, both of these sites are part of the Musée National du Moyen Age, a museum dedicated to the arts and history of the Middle Ages.

Besides the relative novelty of visiting ancient (and surprisingly intact) Roman ruins below the streets of a 21st-century city, the baths give a fascinating insight into Roman culture. These baths consisted of a series of pools: the tepidarium (lukewarm), caldarium (hot), and frigidarium (cold). Guests normally moved from the lukewarm pool to the hot pool, then to the cold before retiring to rooms designed for socializing with other guests. Roman baths of this type were open to everyone, and were an important part of life in ancient Roman towns. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Printing Skin Tissue

Human organs from 3-D printers

An earlier article here covered 3-D printers, which use modified inkjet technology to create solid objects with extremely complex shapes. The printers use a variety of techniques to solidify arbitrary areas on the surface of a powdered substrate, which supports the object as it is built up layer by layer. Designers commonly use 3-D printers for prototyping things like consumer electronic products, ensuring that they will be manufacturable before expensive metal molds are created to enable mass production. I ran into an old acquaintance the day that article ran who had never heard of Interesting Thing of the Day, so I told him about the site. He asked me what that day’s topic was, and I happily described the 3-D printers. He said, “Oh yeah, I know about those. Did you know they’re also using them to ‘print’ human tissue?” Um…no, I had no idea. It turns out that the humble inkjet printer has quite a few tricks up its sleeve—including, incredibly, the capability of manufacturing living skin and other organs.

Cell Mates
Growing individual human cells is not especially difficult. Take a sample of healthy cells, provide them with the right nutrients and environment, and they will grow and multiply. When multiple tissue cells are placed in close proximity to each other, they have a tendency to fuse together. Because of this phenomenon, hospitals can “grow” new skin to be used as grafts for burn patients using the patient’s own skin cells. However, this technique does have significant limitations. In particular, the skin cannot be made very thick because there’s no way to get blood to deeper cells—the process grows a homogeneous sheet of skin without the essential network of blood vessels, not to mention pores and other minute structures. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Tagmemics

The linguistic theory of everything

When I was studying linguistics in graduate school, the question people asked me most often was, “So how many languages can you speak?” I’d roll my eyes and say, “One, almost.” I’d then try to explain that I usually get by pretty well in English, that I can order food in a French restaurant without embarrassing myself, and that I’ve picked up a smattering of phrases in half a dozen other languages—but that’s pretty much it (unless you want to count computer languages or ancient Greek and Hebrew, of which I know just enough to mistranslate an inscription here and there). Linguists, I would say, are not necessarily polyglots; the study of linguistics is not about learning a bunch of languages but rather about understanding the nature of language generally: how the brain creates and interprets it, how children learn it, how it functions in society, how to model it computationally, that sort of thing. (At this point listeners would generally nod, try valiantly to suppress a yawn, and change the subject.)

In the course of my studies, I came across a fringe linguistic theory that is, even by the most generous standards, far from being generally accepted, or even respected. The theory is known as tagmemics; its inventor and primary proponent, the late Dr. Kenneth L. Pike, was on my thesis committee. So I got to spend some quality time getting to know the man and his theory—which, though I argued forcefully against its shortcomings, is nevertheless quite interesting. It’s the one linguistic theory that ordinary, nonacademic human beings have a reasonable chance of comprehending without months of study. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Tag Questions

You know what this is about, don’t you?

People who want to make fun of the Canadian dialect of English invariably start with one of its two most idiosyncratic features. The pronunciation of the diphthong “ou,” of course, is one of them—in words like out and about, Americans exaggerate both the gliding and rounding of the vowels so that it sounds like the “ow” in power, whereas the stereotypical Canadian pronunciation is closer to oat and a boat. I know lots of Canadians who protest this characterization, pointing out that Americans butcher the language much more egregiously. They may say, “Every dialect of English has its faults, eh?” This is the second oft-ridiculed peculiarity of Canadian English: turning a statement into a question by adding the word “eh” at the end, which means, approximately, “Isn’t that so?”

Needless to say, not all Canadians fit the stereotype—my wife, for example, rarely uses “eh,” just as I avoid most of the influences of Pittsburghese. Some of her family members from Saskatchewan, on the other hand, say “hey” instead of “eh,” and there are many other regional variations of English within Canada, just as there are within other English-speaking countries. But whether or not one uses “eh” (or “hey”), every English speaker knows dozens of ways to add a word or a phrase to the end of a statement so that it becomes a yes/no question. Questions formed in this way are called tag questions. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Tunnels of Moose Jaw

Underground legends

The first couple of times I visited Saskatchewan, where my wife’s family lives, it was winter. Temperatures hovered around –40°, making holiday shopping along the streets of downtown Saskatoon a challenge. Even bundled to the gills, we could barely stand to be outside for more than a few minutes. Morgen assured me that during the summer (or “mosquito season,” as it is affectionately known), the prairies of southern Saskatchewan took on an entirely different look and were quite hospitable to humans. But I was thinking, this is why they invented malls. Malls are good. Let’s go to the mall! We went to the mall.

Moosey in the Sky with Diamonds
I like to kid my wife about Saskatchewan: the monotonous flatness of the landscape, the dearth of trees, the nasty winter weather, the fact that the province’s slogan, “Land of Living Skies,” suggests there’s not much interesting about the land itself. Morgen, in turn, can kid me about western Pennsylvania (where I grew up), which has its own peculiarities. But even though Pennsylvania has no shortage of oddly named towns, Saskatchewan’s legendary town of Moose Jaw takes the cake. Although everyone in Canada has heard of Moose Jaw, it’s known more for its silly name than for any other characteristic. Which is a shame, because if you dig a little bit, you can find all sorts of interesting things in Moose Jaw. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Straw Bale Houses

The power of banding together

Several years ago, the company I worked for had a big Halloween celebration. One of my coworkers decided that a group of us needed to dress up as the Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf. So she worked for days sewing costumes for all of us, and even brought in plastic pig noses for us to wear. For an authentic touch, she asked that we also decorate our desks with the building materials featured in the story. I got the short straw (so to speak) and ended up making a pathetic mess by scattering straw all around my desk, and the “pig” who used sticks didn’t fare much better. But our colleague with the brick “house” simply printed out a huge brick pattern on a large-format color printer and wrapped it around his desk. In life as in the story, his design was clearly the best.

It is difficult to set aside the bias that straw is an inappropriate building material, even knowing that wolves lack the lung capacity to blow down a straw house. And yet people have been building sturdy, comfortable houses out of straw bales for more than a century. This building technique has been, shall we say, a bit slow to catch on—and is not without its limitations. But using straw as a building material turns out to have some interesting merits. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Esperanto

Artificial language for the masses

Like many people, I endured four years of high-school French only to find that I lacked the ability to order a croissant in a Paris bakery without making a fool of myself. I eventually got the hang of basic conversation in French, but then found myself traveling to places where Spanish, German, or Italian (for example) were spoken, and having to start all over again with the basics (“Where’s the bathroom?” “How much does this cost?” “Where have you sent my luggage?”). As much as I enjoy and appreciate linguistic diversity, it can make travel, trade, and diplomacy challenging at times.

In some heavily multilingual areas of the world, most people learn a lingua franca—a regional trade language—in addition to their mother tongue. It stands to reason, then, that this notion could be expanded more broadly. But when someone proposes English or French, say, as a trade language, objections inevitably arise. These languages are notoriously difficult to learn, with strange spellings and lots of grammatical rules and exceptions. But more importantly, they’re loaded with historical and cultural baggage. If your country—not mentioning any names—has been a rival of English- or French-speaking nations, you will likely not jump at the chance to spend long years learning a language with such unpleasant associations. The only hope for a truly universal language would seem to be an artificial one—a language that is designed to be free from cultural biases and easy to learn. This was precisely the goal of Esperanto. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Geodesic Domes

Building outside the box

Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past half century, you have probably encountered a geodesic dome at one time or another. They can be found on playgrounds, at amusement parks, and in museums; and any number of homes and public buildings are constructed using some variation of this structure. Depending on your tastes and disposition, you may think geodesic domes look cool, endearingly retro, or woefully unfashionable. But you may not know the story (and the logic) behind this sometimes-controversial design.

Bucky-ing Trends
R. Buckminster Fuller was one of the most prolific thinkers and inventors of the 20th century. He wrote numerous books, received dozens of patents, and worked tirelessly for decades to solve some of the world’s most vexing problems using the tools of engineering and common sense. For all his innovations, Fuller was a very practical man, and like most engineers he saw a great beauty in elegantly logical solutions—even if they defied tradition, aesthetics, or conventional wisdom. So when a housing crisis arose in the years following World War II, he set out to find the simplest and most effective solution, no matter how unusual it may be. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Performative Verbs

Doing as you say

In a sociolinguistics class years ago, each of the students had to complete a major project on the topic of their choice, and the professor met with each of us to discuss what sorts of things we were thinking of researching. I described some areas of interest, and my professor said, “You should read J.L. Austin’s How to Do Things with Words. I think it’s exactly the kind of thing you’re talking about.” I read the book, and although it was not at all relevant to the project I had in mind, it was quite interesting. The entire book was a treatise on performative verbs, which is to say, verbs whose action is accomplished merely by saying them.

I Speak, Therefore I Act
Performatives sound a bit mystical at first, like a spell or incantation. But in fact such verbs are quite commonplace. If you’ve ever said, “I promise” or “I apologize,” you have performed those actions by the simple act of saying them. You’re not talking about doing these things or stating that you’re doing them; you’re actually doing them. The same is true when you say, “I bet,” “I invite,” “I request,” or “I protest,” for example. There are countless other examples, such as: [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Ice Hotels

In-refrigerator rooms

When I first heard about an “ice hotel,” I thought it must be a joke. I’ve heard of igloos, of course, but that’s not really the image that comes to mind when I think hotel. Sure, there was the Bad Guy’s ice lair in the James Bond film “Die Another Day,” but that’s just fantasy, right? The thought that someone might really construct an entire hotel out of ice, rent rooms, and then repeat the process each year was almost too wacky to believe. Believe it—not only does it happen, it has now become the trendiest way to spend a winter vacation.

They’ve Got It Down Cold
The first ice hotel was built in 1989 in a village called Jukkasjärvi in northern Lapland, Sweden. That first year it was a modest, 60-square-meter igloo; this year, the structure measures over 4,000 square meters and has 85 rooms. Construction begins each year in October, and the hotel is open for guests from December through April (weather permitting). By summer the hotel has melted, but plans are already underway for next year’s bigger, better ice structure. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Spoonerisms

Sixing up mounds

One of my linguistics professors in grad school had a strange sense of humor that appealed to me greatly. He didn’t see a need to divide work and pleasure; exams regularly contained jokes, puns, and strange juxtapositions, and every class session was filled with laughter. When this professor needed to make up a word in an imaginary language to use as an example, he wouldn’t give it a common meaning like “mother” or “tree”; he’d instead gloss the word as “flagpole sitter,” “hubcap thief,” or something similarly odd. He constantly urged us not to take our homework too seriously and to ask annoying questions of the other professors. I think this lighthearted attitude helped us all to learn better, and it certainly brightened the classroom atmosphere.

How Near This
Class discussion had a remarkable tendency to stray from the planned lesson, though invariably it went in interesting (and linguistically useful) directions. One day, someone in the class mentioned the word metathesis, which is the phenomenon that occurs when two adjacent sounds are swapped (as in “aks” for “ask”). Without missing a beat, the professor said, “Oh yes, this reminds me of spoonerisms,” and proceeded to recite, rapidly and perfectly, the tale of the Mion and the Louse. We were stunned and delighted by his brilliant display of linguistic prowess. It’s not easy to make mistakes like that on purpose. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Origin of the Trophy Cup

Handing it to the winner

Having written several articles based on the theme “Throwing Down the Goblet,” I found myself wondering about trophies. Lots of major sporting competitions award the winning team a trophy in the shape of a cup (or, if you prefer, a bowl, chalice, or goblet)—the Stanley Cup, the America’s Cup, the World Cup, and so on. Trophy cups are also found quite often in collegiate sports, and Harry Potter fans will of course remember the House Cup as the highly coveted award for the house that has accumulated the most points during a given term. Often, though not always, tradition dictates that a single trophy cup be passed from one winning team to the next. In individual competitions, by contrast, trophy cups are much less common; designs are based more often on a human (or angelic) figure of some kind.

The Salad Fork of Victory
When you’re rooting for your team to win, say, the World Cup, it’s probably not especially important to you what the actual token of victory is shaped like. The important thing, most competitors and fans would agree, is simply to win—and to have some commemorative token. A cube or sphere or an inscribed toaster oven could just as easily serve this purpose, though without a doubt, larger, more elaborate, and costlier trophies give the winner something further to brag about. All I wanted to know was, why a cup? How did a cup, of all things, come to symbolize competitive victory? [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Cleopatra's Wager

The most expensive meal in history

A news article mentioned a hotel bar in New York whose drink menu includes a US$10,000 drink called “Martini on the Rock.” That works out to about $5 for the gin, vermouth, and olives—and $9,995 for the loose diamond sitting at the bottom of the glass. Patrons must order the drink three days in advance, and meet with a jeweler to pick out the perfect stone. The first person to order this drink paid a bit extra—$13,000—and instead of a loose stone, selected a 1.85-carat diamond engagement ring. (His girlfriend said yes.) Perhaps unknown to the hotel’s proprietors, this extravagant beverage has a fascinating historical precedent.

Et Tu, Cleo?
The year was 41 B.C. Mark Antony, one of the rulers of Rome, summoned Egyptian queen Cleopatra VII for an audience at Tarsus (in present-day Turkey). Antony ostensibly wanted Cleopatra to answer charges that she had aided Cassius, who had conspired with Brutus to assassinate Julius Caesar. But most people believe the real reason for the meeting was that Antony wanted Egyptian aid for an upcoming military campaign, and besides, he had the hots for Cleopatra. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

New Orleans Walking Tours

Ghosts, vampires, and history

The first time I visited New Orleans, I didn’t know anything about the city except that it was legendary for its Mardi Gras celebrations. But the more I learned about New Orleans, the more I came to love it. The history of the city is immensely colorful and complex. New Orleans has some of the most distinctive cuisine in the United States, a well-earned reputation as a center of music and culture, and a vibrant nightlife. But what I find most interesting about the city is its rich collection of legends and myths. The best way to learn about them is to take one of numerous walking tours of the French Quarter.

The Spanish French Quarter
The French Quarter—the focal point of the city for most tourists—is a well-defined area about 13 blocks by 7 blocks, bordered by the Mississippi River on the south. This was the original city of New Orleans, established by French settlers in 1718 and controlled by France until 1762, when it was given to Spain. The city remained under Spanish rule until the early 1800s, when it was secretly returned to France, only to be immediately turned over to the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase. The French Quarter is so named because for many years it was the district in which the majority of the French-speaking population lived. However, much of the original city was destroyed by massive fires in 1788 and 1794. Since Spain was in control during that time, the new buildings for the most part reflected Spanish architecture, and that is what survives today as the French Quarter. Most buildings are only three or four stories high. Wrought-iron balconies extend over sidewalks in the business district, and louvered shutters cover most windows and doors. The French Quarter has the feeling of being very old—for a North American city—largely because of strict construction rules designed to protect the historical character of the buildings. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Paris Sewers

Exploring the dark underbelly of the City of Light

Ah, Paris. It’s one of my very favorite places, not least because its ITSKI (Interesting Things per Square Kilometer Index) is off the scale. There are, of course, the very touristy sights like the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, and Notre Dame, as well as thousands of cafés, shops, and bakeries that tantalize and inspire. There are also a great many lesser-known places of historical interest, including one where I spent an afternoon on each of my past two visits to the city: the sewer system. OK, the aroma wasn’t quite as pleasing as that of a fresh baguette, but the Paris sewer system—part of which has been turned into a museum that’s open to the public—is vast, intricate, and surprising in many ways. You may think of a sewer as nothing more than a conduit for waste, but in Paris, there’s more to the sewers than meets the nose.

The tunnels that make up the Paris sewer system are mostly very large—almost the size of a subway tunnel. In most cases a central channel, wide enough and deep enough for a boat, carries waste and runoff water; on both sides are broad, paved walkways with enough headroom for most people to walk comfortably. Overhead are pipes that supply the city’s fresh water, telecommunications cables, and pneumatic tubes, among other things. But it’s the length and complexity of the tunnels that make them so intriguing: they almost exactly follow the layout of the streets above—in fact, every corner within the sewers has a street sign on it that mirrors the one on the surface. Where a wide boulevard runs on the surface, a wide sewer tunnel (or two) runs beneath; smaller streets have smaller sewers, and even side streets and alleys are duplicated underground. In all, there are about 1,300 miles (2,100km) of sewer tunnels underneath Paris. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Sutro Baths

Diving into the past

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

At the intersection of the Boulevard St. Michel and the Boulevard St. Germain, in the heart of Paris’s Latin Quarter, a ruin of brick and stone walls, vaguely recognizable as rooms or chambers, is being unearthed. This spot was once the site of Roman public baths, a place of leisure for local residents in the first to third century A.D. These baths were destroyed in the third century, and the property was later bought in 1330 by the Abbot of Cluny, who built a new structure alongside the ruins. During the French Revolution, the property passed out of the church’s hands, and had various owners (one of whom covered the bath ruins in six feet of soil) before being bought by Alexandre du Sommerard, a collector of medieval antiquities. Today, both of these sites are part of the Musée National du Moyen Age, a museum dedicated to the arts and history of the Middle Ages.

Besides the relative novelty of visiting ancient (and surprisingly intact) Roman ruins below the streets of a 21st-century city, the baths give a fascinating insight into Roman culture. These baths consisted of a series of pools: the tepidarium (lukewarm), caldarium (hot), and frigidarium (cold). Guests normally moved from the lukewarm pool to the hot pool, then to the cold before retiring to rooms designed for socializing with other guests. Roman baths of this type were open to everyone, and were an important part of life in ancient Roman towns. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Printing Skin Tissue

Human organs from 3-D printers

An earlier article here covered 3-D printers, which use modified inkjet technology to create solid objects with extremely complex shapes. The printers use a variety of techniques to solidify arbitrary areas on the surface of a powdered substrate, which supports the object as it is built up layer by layer. Designers commonly use 3-D printers for prototyping things like consumer electronic products, ensuring that they will be manufacturable before expensive metal molds are created to enable mass production. I ran into an old acquaintance the day that article ran who had never heard of Interesting Thing of the Day, so I told him about the site. He asked me what that day’s topic was, and I happily described the 3-D printers. He said, “Oh yeah, I know about those. Did you know they’re also using them to ‘print’ human tissue?” Um…no, I had no idea. It turns out that the humble inkjet printer has quite a few tricks up its sleeve—including, incredibly, the capability of manufacturing living skin and other organs.

Cell Mates
Growing individual human cells is not especially difficult. Take a sample of healthy cells, provide them with the right nutrients and environment, and they will grow and multiply. When multiple tissue cells are placed in close proximity to each other, they have a tendency to fuse together. Because of this phenomenon, hospitals can “grow” new skin to be used as grafts for burn patients using the patient’s own skin cells. However, this technique does have significant limitations. In particular, the skin cannot be made very thick because there’s no way to get blood to deeper cells—the process grows a homogeneous sheet of skin without the essential network of blood vessels, not to mention pores and other minute structures. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Tagmemics

The linguistic theory of everything

When I was studying linguistics in graduate school, the question people asked me most often was, “So how many languages can you speak?” I’d roll my eyes and say, “One, almost.” I’d then try to explain that I usually get by pretty well in English, that I can order food in a French restaurant without embarrassing myself, and that I’ve picked up a smattering of phrases in half a dozen other languages—but that’s pretty much it (unless you want to count computer languages or ancient Greek and Hebrew, of which I know just enough to mistranslate an inscription here and there). Linguists, I would say, are not necessarily polyglots; the study of linguistics is not about learning a bunch of languages but rather about understanding the nature of language generally: how the brain creates and interprets it, how children learn it, how it functions in society, how to model it computationally, that sort of thing. (At this point listeners would generally nod, try valiantly to suppress a yawn, and change the subject.)

In the course of my studies, I came across a fringe linguistic theory that is, even by the most generous standards, far from being generally accepted, or even respected. The theory is known as tagmemics; its inventor and primary proponent, the late Dr. Kenneth L. Pike, was on my thesis committee. So I got to spend some quality time getting to know the man and his theory—which, though I argued forcefully against its shortcomings, is nevertheless quite interesting. It’s the one linguistic theory that ordinary, nonacademic human beings have a reasonable chance of comprehending without months of study. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Tag Questions

You know what this is about, don’t you?

People who want to make fun of the Canadian dialect of English invariably start with one of its two most idiosyncratic features. The pronunciation of the diphthong “ou,” of course, is one of them—in words like out and about, Americans exaggerate both the gliding and rounding of the vowels so that it sounds like the “ow” in power, whereas the stereotypical Canadian pronunciation is closer to oat and a boat. I know lots of Canadians who protest this characterization, pointing out that Americans butcher the language much more egregiously. They may say, “Every dialect of English has its faults, eh?” This is the second oft-ridiculed peculiarity of Canadian English: turning a statement into a question by adding the word “eh” at the end, which means, approximately, “Isn’t that so?”

Needless to say, not all Canadians fit the stereotype—my wife, for example, rarely uses “eh,” just as I avoid most of the influences of Pittsburghese. Some of her family members from Saskatchewan, on the other hand, say “hey” instead of “eh,” and there are many other regional variations of English within Canada, just as there are within other English-speaking countries. But whether or not one uses “eh” (or “hey”), every English speaker knows dozens of ways to add a word or a phrase to the end of a statement so that it becomes a yes/no question. Questions formed in this way are called tag questions. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Tunnels of Moose Jaw

Underground legends

The first couple of times I visited Saskatchewan, where my wife’s family lives, it was winter. Temperatures hovered around –40°, making holiday shopping along the streets of downtown Saskatoon a challenge. Even bundled to the gills, we could barely stand to be outside for more than a few minutes. Morgen assured me that during the summer (or “mosquito season,” as it is affectionately known), the prairies of southern Saskatchewan took on an entirely different look and were quite hospitable to humans. But I was thinking, this is why they invented malls. Malls are good. Let’s go to the mall! We went to the mall.

Moosey in the Sky with Diamonds
I like to kid my wife about Saskatchewan: the monotonous flatness of the landscape, the dearth of trees, the nasty winter weather, the fact that the province’s slogan, “Land of Living Skies,” suggests there’s not much interesting about the land itself. Morgen, in turn, can kid me about western Pennsylvania (where I grew up), which has its own peculiarities. But even though Pennsylvania has no shortage of oddly named towns, Saskatchewan’s legendary town of Moose Jaw takes the cake. Although everyone in Canada has heard of Moose Jaw, it’s known more for its silly name than for any other characteristic. Which is a shame, because if you dig a little bit, you can find all sorts of interesting things in Moose Jaw. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Straw Bale Houses

The power of banding together

Several years ago, the company I worked for had a big Halloween celebration. One of my coworkers decided that a group of us needed to dress up as the Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf. So she worked for days sewing costumes for all of us, and even brought in plastic pig noses for us to wear. For an authentic touch, she asked that we also decorate our desks with the building materials featured in the story. I got the short straw (so to speak) and ended up making a pathetic mess by scattering straw all around my desk, and the “pig” who used sticks didn’t fare much better. But our colleague with the brick “house” simply printed out a huge brick pattern on a large-format color printer and wrapped it around his desk. In life as in the story, his design was clearly the best.

It is difficult to set aside the bias that straw is an inappropriate building material, even knowing that wolves lack the lung capacity to blow down a straw house. And yet people have been building sturdy, comfortable houses out of straw bales for more than a century. This building technique has been, shall we say, a bit slow to catch on—and is not without its limitations. But using straw as a building material turns out to have some interesting merits. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Esperanto

Artificial language for the masses

Like many people, I endured four years of high-school French only to find that I lacked the ability to order a croissant in a Paris bakery without making a fool of myself. I eventually got the hang of basic conversation in French, but then found myself traveling to places where Spanish, German, or Italian (for example) were spoken, and having to start all over again with the basics (“Where’s the bathroom?” “How much does this cost?” “Where have you sent my luggage?”). As much as I enjoy and appreciate linguistic diversity, it can make travel, trade, and diplomacy challenging at times.

In some heavily multilingual areas of the world, most people learn a lingua franca—a regional trade language—in addition to their mother tongue. It stands to reason, then, that this notion could be expanded more broadly. But when someone proposes English or French, say, as a trade language, objections inevitably arise. These languages are notoriously difficult to learn, with strange spellings and lots of grammatical rules and exceptions. But more importantly, they’re loaded with historical and cultural baggage. If your country—not mentioning any names—has been a rival of English- or French-speaking nations, you will likely not jump at the chance to spend long years learning a language with such unpleasant associations. The only hope for a truly universal language would seem to be an artificial one—a language that is designed to be free from cultural biases and easy to learn. This was precisely the goal of Esperanto. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Geodesic Domes

Building outside the box

Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past half century, you have probably encountered a geodesic dome at one time or another. They can be found on playgrounds, at amusement parks, and in museums; and any number of homes and public buildings are constructed using some variation of this structure. Depending on your tastes and disposition, you may think geodesic domes look cool, endearingly retro, or woefully unfashionable. But you may not know the story (and the logic) behind this sometimes-controversial design.

Bucky-ing Trends
R. Buckminster Fuller was one of the most prolific thinkers and inventors of the 20th century. He wrote numerous books, received dozens of patents, and worked tirelessly for decades to solve some of the world’s most vexing problems using the tools of engineering and common sense. For all his innovations, Fuller was a very practical man, and like most engineers he saw a great beauty in elegantly logical solutions—even if they defied tradition, aesthetics, or conventional wisdom. So when a housing crisis arose in the years following World War II, he set out to find the simplest and most effective solution, no matter how unusual it may be. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Performative Verbs

Doing as you say

In a sociolinguistics class years ago, each of the students had to complete a major project on the topic of their choice, and the professor met with each of us to discuss what sorts of things we were thinking of researching. I described some areas of interest, and my professor said, “You should read J.L. Austin’s How to Do Things with Words. I think it’s exactly the kind of thing you’re talking about.” I read the book, and although it was not at all relevant to the project I had in mind, it was quite interesting. The entire book was a treatise on performative verbs, which is to say, verbs whose action is accomplished merely by saying them.

I Speak, Therefore I Act
Performatives sound a bit mystical at first, like a spell or incantation. But in fact such verbs are quite commonplace. If you’ve ever said, “I promise” or “I apologize,” you have performed those actions by the simple act of saying them. You’re not talking about doing these things or stating that you’re doing them; you’re actually doing them. The same is true when you say, “I bet,” “I invite,” “I request,” or “I protest,” for example. There are countless other examples, such as: [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Ice Hotels

In-refrigerator rooms

When I first heard about an “ice hotel,” I thought it must be a joke. I’ve heard of igloos, of course, but that’s not really the image that comes to mind when I think hotel. Sure, there was the Bad Guy’s ice lair in the James Bond film “Die Another Day,” but that’s just fantasy, right? The thought that someone might really construct an entire hotel out of ice, rent rooms, and then repeat the process each year was almost too wacky to believe. Believe it—not only does it happen, it has now become the trendiest way to spend a winter vacation.

They’ve Got It Down Cold
The first ice hotel was built in 1989 in a village called Jukkasjärvi in northern Lapland, Sweden. That first year it was a modest, 60-square-meter igloo; this year, the structure measures over 4,000 square meters and has 85 rooms. Construction begins each year in October, and the hotel is open for guests from December through April (weather permitting). By summer the hotel has melted, but plans are already underway for next year’s bigger, better ice structure. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Spoonerisms

Sixing up mounds

One of my linguistics professors in grad school had a strange sense of humor that appealed to me greatly. He didn’t see a need to divide work and pleasure; exams regularly contained jokes, puns, and strange juxtapositions, and every class session was filled with laughter. When this professor needed to make up a word in an imaginary language to use as an example, he wouldn’t give it a common meaning like “mother” or “tree”; he’d instead gloss the word as “flagpole sitter,” “hubcap thief,” or something similarly odd. He constantly urged us not to take our homework too seriously and to ask annoying questions of the other professors. I think this lighthearted attitude helped us all to learn better, and it certainly brightened the classroom atmosphere.

How Near This
Class discussion had a remarkable tendency to stray from the planned lesson, though invariably it went in interesting (and linguistically useful) directions. One day, someone in the class mentioned the word metathesis, which is the phenomenon that occurs when two adjacent sounds are swapped (as in “aks” for “ask”). Without missing a beat, the professor said, “Oh yes, this reminds me of spoonerisms,” and proceeded to recite, rapidly and perfectly, the tale of the Mion and the Louse. We were stunned and delighted by his brilliant display of linguistic prowess. It’s not easy to make mistakes like that on purpose. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Origin of the Trophy Cup

Handing it to the winner

Having written several articles based on the theme “Throwing Down the Goblet,” I found myself wondering about trophies. Lots of major sporting competitions award the winning team a trophy in the shape of a cup (or, if you prefer, a bowl, chalice, or goblet)—the Stanley Cup, the America’s Cup, the World Cup, and so on. Trophy cups are also found quite often in collegiate sports, and Harry Potter fans will of course remember the House Cup as the highly coveted award for the house that has accumulated the most points during a given term. Often, though not always, tradition dictates that a single trophy cup be passed from one winning team to the next. In individual competitions, by contrast, trophy cups are much less common; designs are based more often on a human (or angelic) figure of some kind.

The Salad Fork of Victory
When you’re rooting for your team to win, say, the World Cup, it’s probably not especially important to you what the actual token of victory is shaped like. The important thing, most competitors and fans would agree, is simply to win—and to have some commemorative token. A cube or sphere or an inscribed toaster oven could just as easily serve this purpose, though without a doubt, larger, more elaborate, and costlier trophies give the winner something further to brag about. All I wanted to know was, why a cup? How did a cup, of all things, come to symbolize competitive victory? [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Cleopatra's Wager

The most expensive meal in history

A news article mentioned a hotel bar in New York whose drink menu includes a US$10,000 drink called “Martini on the Rock.” That works out to about $5 for the gin, vermouth, and olives—and $9,995 for the loose diamond sitting at the bottom of the glass. Patrons must order the drink three days in advance, and meet with a jeweler to pick out the perfect stone. The first person to order this drink paid a bit extra—$13,000—and instead of a loose stone, selected a 1.85-carat diamond engagement ring. (His girlfriend said yes.) Perhaps unknown to the hotel’s proprietors, this extravagant beverage has a fascinating historical precedent.

Et Tu, Cleo?
The year was 41 B.C. Mark Antony, one of the rulers of Rome, summoned Egyptian queen Cleopatra VII for an audience at Tarsus (in present-day Turkey). Antony ostensibly wanted Cleopatra to answer charges that she had aided Cassius, who had conspired with Brutus to assassinate Julius Caesar. But most people believe the real reason for the meeting was that Antony wanted Egyptian aid for an upcoming military campaign, and besides, he had the hots for Cleopatra. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

New Orleans Walking Tours

Ghosts, vampires, and history

The first time I visited New Orleans, I didn’t know anything about the city except that it was legendary for its Mardi Gras celebrations. But the more I learned about New Orleans, the more I came to love it. The history of the city is immensely colorful and complex. New Orleans has some of the most distinctive cuisine in the United States, a well-earned reputation as a center of music and culture, and a vibrant nightlife. But what I find most interesting about the city is its rich collection of legends and myths. The best way to learn about them is to take one of numerous walking tours of the French Quarter.

The Spanish French Quarter
The French Quarter—the focal point of the city for most tourists—is a well-defined area about 13 blocks by 7 blocks, bordered by the Mississippi River on the south. This was the original city of New Orleans, established by French settlers in 1718 and controlled by France until 1762, when it was given to Spain. The city remained under Spanish rule until the early 1800s, when it was secretly returned to France, only to be immediately turned over to the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase. The French Quarter is so named because for many years it was the district in which the majority of the French-speaking population lived. However, much of the original city was destroyed by massive fires in 1788 and 1794. Since Spain was in control during that time, the new buildings for the most part reflected Spanish architecture, and that is what survives today as the French Quarter. Most buildings are only three or four stories high. Wrought-iron balconies extend over sidewalks in the business district, and louvered shutters cover most windows and doors. The French Quarter has the feeling of being very old—for a North American city—largely because of strict construction rules designed to protect the historical character of the buildings. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Paris Sewers

Exploring the dark underbelly of the City of Light

Ah, Paris. It’s one of my very favorite places, not least because its ITSKI (Interesting Things per Square Kilometer Index) is off the scale. There are, of course, the very touristy sights like the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, and Notre Dame, as well as thousands of cafés, shops, and bakeries that tantalize and inspire. There are also a great many lesser-known places of historical interest, including one where I spent an afternoon on each of my past two visits to the city: the sewer system. OK, the aroma wasn’t quite as pleasing as that of a fresh baguette, but the Paris sewer system—part of which has been turned into a museum that’s open to the public—is vast, intricate, and surprising in many ways. You may think of a sewer as nothing more than a conduit for waste, but in Paris, there’s more to the sewers than meets the nose.

The tunnels that make up the Paris sewer system are mostly very large—almost the size of a subway tunnel. In most cases a central channel, wide enough and deep enough for a boat, carries waste and runoff water; on both sides are broad, paved walkways with enough headroom for most people to walk comfortably. Overhead are pipes that supply the city’s fresh water, telecommunications cables, and pneumatic tubes, among other things. But it’s the length and complexity of the tunnels that make them so intriguing: they almost exactly follow the layout of the streets above—in fact, every corner within the sewers has a street sign on it that mirrors the one on the surface. Where a wide boulevard runs on the surface, a wide sewer tunnel (or two) runs beneath; smaller streets have smaller sewers, and even side streets and alleys are duplicated underground. In all, there are about 1,300 miles (2,100km) of sewer tunnels underneath Paris. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Sutro Baths

Diving into the past

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

At the intersection of the Boulevard St. Michel and the Boulevard St. Germain, in the heart of Paris’s Latin Quarter, a ruin of brick and stone walls, vaguely recognizable as rooms or chambers, is being unearthed. This spot was once the site of Roman public baths, a place of leisure for local residents in the first to third century A.D. These baths were destroyed in the third century, and the property was later bought in 1330 by the Abbot of Cluny, who built a new structure alongside the ruins. During the French Revolution, the property passed out of the church’s hands, and had various owners (one of whom covered the bath ruins in six feet of soil) before being bought by Alexandre du Sommerard, a collector of medieval antiquities. Today, both of these sites are part of the Musée National du Moyen Age, a museum dedicated to the arts and history of the Middle Ages.

Besides the relative novelty of visiting ancient (and surprisingly intact) Roman ruins below the streets of a 21st-century city, the baths give a fascinating insight into Roman culture. These baths consisted of a series of pools: the tepidarium (lukewarm), caldarium (hot), and frigidarium (cold). Guests normally moved from the lukewarm pool to the hot pool, then to the cold before retiring to rooms designed for socializing with other guests. Roman baths of this type were open to everyone, and were an important part of life in ancient Roman towns. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Printing Skin Tissue

Human organs from 3-D printers

An earlier article here covered 3-D printers, which use modified inkjet technology to create solid objects with extremely complex shapes. The printers use a variety of techniques to solidify arbitrary areas on the surface of a powdered substrate, which supports the object as it is built up layer by layer. Designers commonly use 3-D printers for prototyping things like consumer electronic products, ensuring that they will be manufacturable before expensive metal molds are created to enable mass production. I ran into an old acquaintance the day that article ran who had never heard of Interesting Thing of the Day, so I told him about the site. He asked me what that day’s topic was, and I happily described the 3-D printers. He said, “Oh yeah, I know about those. Did you know they’re also using them to ‘print’ human tissue?” Um…no, I had no idea. It turns out that the humble inkjet printer has quite a few tricks up its sleeve—including, incredibly, the capability of manufacturing living skin and other organs.

Cell Mates
Growing individual human cells is not especially difficult. Take a sample of healthy cells, provide them with the right nutrients and environment, and they will grow and multiply. When multiple tissue cells are placed in close proximity to each other, they have a tendency to fuse together. Because of this phenomenon, hospitals can “grow” new skin to be used as grafts for burn patients using the patient’s own skin cells. However, this technique does have significant limitations. In particular, the skin cannot be made very thick because there’s no way to get blood to deeper cells—the process grows a homogeneous sheet of skin without the essential network of blood vessels, not to mention pores and other minute structures. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Tagmemics

The linguistic theory of everything

When I was studying linguistics in graduate school, the question people asked me most often was, “So how many languages can you speak?” I’d roll my eyes and say, “One, almost.” I’d then try to explain that I usually get by pretty well in English, that I can order food in a French restaurant without embarrassing myself, and that I’ve picked up a smattering of phrases in half a dozen other languages—but that’s pretty much it (unless you want to count computer languages or ancient Greek and Hebrew, of which I know just enough to mistranslate an inscription here and there). Linguists, I would say, are not necessarily polyglots; the study of linguistics is not about learning a bunch of languages but rather about understanding the nature of language generally: how the brain creates and interprets it, how children learn it, how it functions in society, how to model it computationally, that sort of thing. (At this point listeners would generally nod, try valiantly to suppress a yawn, and change the subject.)

In the course of my studies, I came across a fringe linguistic theory that is, even by the most generous standards, far from being generally accepted, or even respected. The theory is known as tagmemics; its inventor and primary proponent, the late Dr. Kenneth L. Pike, was on my thesis committee. So I got to spend some quality time getting to know the man and his theory—which, though I argued forcefully against its shortcomings, is nevertheless quite interesting. It’s the one linguistic theory that ordinary, nonacademic human beings have a reasonable chance of comprehending without months of study. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Tag Questions

You know what this is about, don’t you?

People who want to make fun of the Canadian dialect of English invariably start with one of its two most idiosyncratic features. The pronunciation of the diphthong “ou,” of course, is one of them—in words like out and about, Americans exaggerate both the gliding and rounding of the vowels so that it sounds like the “ow” in power, whereas the stereotypical Canadian pronunciation is closer to oat and a boat. I know lots of Canadians who protest this characterization, pointing out that Americans butcher the language much more egregiously. They may say, “Every dialect of English has its faults, eh?” This is the second oft-ridiculed peculiarity of Canadian English: turning a statement into a question by adding the word “eh” at the end, which means, approximately, “Isn’t that so?”

Needless to say, not all Canadians fit the stereotype—my wife, for example, rarely uses “eh,” just as I avoid most of the influences of Pittsburghese. Some of her family members from Saskatchewan, on the other hand, say “hey” instead of “eh,” and there are many other regional variations of English within Canada, just as there are within other English-speaking countries. But whether or not one uses “eh” (or “hey”), every English speaker knows dozens of ways to add a word or a phrase to the end of a statement so that it becomes a yes/no question. Questions formed in this way are called tag questions. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Tunnels of Moose Jaw

Underground legends

The first couple of times I visited Saskatchewan, where my wife’s family lives, it was winter. Temperatures hovered around –40°, making holiday shopping along the streets of downtown Saskatoon a challenge. Even bundled to the gills, we could barely stand to be outside for more than a few minutes. Morgen assured me that during the summer (or “mosquito season,” as it is affectionately known), the prairies of southern Saskatchewan took on an entirely different look and were quite hospitable to humans. But I was thinking, this is why they invented malls. Malls are good. Let’s go to the mall! We went to the mall.

Moosey in the Sky with Diamonds
I like to kid my wife about Saskatchewan: the monotonous flatness of the landscape, the dearth of trees, the nasty winter weather, the fact that the province’s slogan, “Land of Living Skies,” suggests there’s not much interesting about the land itself. Morgen, in turn, can kid me about western Pennsylvania (where I grew up), which has its own peculiarities. But even though Pennsylvania has no shortage of oddly named towns, Saskatchewan’s legendary town of Moose Jaw takes the cake. Although everyone in Canada has heard of Moose Jaw, it’s known more for its silly name than for any other characteristic. Which is a shame, because if you dig a little bit, you can find all sorts of interesting things in Moose Jaw. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Straw Bale Houses

The power of banding together

Several years ago, the company I worked for had a big Halloween celebration. One of my coworkers decided that a group of us needed to dress up as the Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf. So she worked for days sewing costumes for all of us, and even brought in plastic pig noses for us to wear. For an authentic touch, she asked that we also decorate our desks with the building materials featured in the story. I got the short straw (so to speak) and ended up making a pathetic mess by scattering straw all around my desk, and the “pig” who used sticks didn’t fare much better. But our colleague with the brick “house” simply printed out a huge brick pattern on a large-format color printer and wrapped it around his desk. In life as in the story, his design was clearly the best.

It is difficult to set aside the bias that straw is an inappropriate building material, even knowing that wolves lack the lung capacity to blow down a straw house. And yet people have been building sturdy, comfortable houses out of straw bales for more than a century. This building technique has been, shall we say, a bit slow to catch on—and is not without its limitations. But using straw as a building material turns out to have some interesting merits. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Esperanto

Artificial language for the masses

Like many people, I endured four years of high-school French only to find that I lacked the ability to order a croissant in a Paris bakery without making a fool of myself. I eventually got the hang of basic conversation in French, but then found myself traveling to places where Spanish, German, or Italian (for example) were spoken, and having to start all over again with the basics (“Where’s the bathroom?” “How much does this cost?” “Where have you sent my luggage?”). As much as I enjoy and appreciate linguistic diversity, it can make travel, trade, and diplomacy challenging at times.

In some heavily multilingual areas of the world, most people learn a lingua franca—a regional trade language—in addition to their mother tongue. It stands to reason, then, that this notion could be expanded more broadly. But when someone proposes English or French, say, as a trade language, objections inevitably arise. These languages are notoriously difficult to learn, with strange spellings and lots of grammatical rules and exceptions. But more importantly, they’re loaded with historical and cultural baggage. If your country—not mentioning any names—has been a rival of English- or French-speaking nations, you will likely not jump at the chance to spend long years learning a language with such unpleasant associations. The only hope for a truly universal language would seem to be an artificial one—a language that is designed to be free from cultural biases and easy to learn. This was precisely the goal of Esperanto. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Geodesic Domes

Building outside the box

Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past half century, you have probably encountered a geodesic dome at one time or another. They can be found on playgrounds, at amusement parks, and in museums; and any number of homes and public buildings are constructed using some variation of this structure. Depending on your tastes and disposition, you may think geodesic domes look cool, endearingly retro, or woefully unfashionable. But you may not know the story (and the logic) behind this sometimes-controversial design.

Bucky-ing Trends
R. Buckminster Fuller was one of the most prolific thinkers and inventors of the 20th century. He wrote numerous books, received dozens of patents, and worked tirelessly for decades to solve some of the world’s most vexing problems using the tools of engineering and common sense. For all his innovations, Fuller was a very practical man, and like most engineers he saw a great beauty in elegantly logical solutions—even if they defied tradition, aesthetics, or conventional wisdom. So when a housing crisis arose in the years following World War II, he set out to find the simplest and most effective solution, no matter how unusual it may be. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Performative Verbs

Doing as you say

In a sociolinguistics class years ago, each of the students had to complete a major project on the topic of their choice, and the professor met with each of us to discuss what sorts of things we were thinking of researching. I described some areas of interest, and my professor said, “You should read J.L. Austin’s How to Do Things with Words. I think it’s exactly the kind of thing you’re talking about.” I read the book, and although it was not at all relevant to the project I had in mind, it was quite interesting. The entire book was a treatise on performative verbs, which is to say, verbs whose action is accomplished merely by saying them.

I Speak, Therefore I Act
Performatives sound a bit mystical at first, like a spell or incantation. But in fact such verbs are quite commonplace. If you’ve ever said, “I promise” or “I apologize,” you have performed those actions by the simple act of saying them. You’re not talking about doing these things or stating that you’re doing them; you’re actually doing them. The same is true when you say, “I bet,” “I invite,” “I request,” or “I protest,” for example. There are countless other examples, such as: [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Ice Hotels

In-refrigerator rooms

When I first heard about an “ice hotel,” I thought it must be a joke. I’ve heard of igloos, of course, but that’s not really the image that comes to mind when I think hotel. Sure, there was the Bad Guy’s ice lair in the James Bond film “Die Another Day,” but that’s just fantasy, right? The thought that someone might really construct an entire hotel out of ice, rent rooms, and then repeat the process each year was almost too wacky to believe. Believe it—not only does it happen, it has now become the trendiest way to spend a winter vacation.

They’ve Got It Down Cold
The first ice hotel was built in 1989 in a village called Jukkasjärvi in northern Lapland, Sweden. That first year it was a modest, 60-square-meter igloo; this year, the structure measures over 4,000 square meters and has 85 rooms. Construction begins each year in October, and the hotel is open for guests from December through April (weather permitting). By summer the hotel has melted, but plans are already underway for next year’s bigger, better ice structure. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Spoonerisms

Sixing up mounds

One of my linguistics professors in grad school had a strange sense of humor that appealed to me greatly. He didn’t see a need to divide work and pleasure; exams regularly contained jokes, puns, and strange juxtapositions, and every class session was filled with laughter. When this professor needed to make up a word in an imaginary language to use as an example, he wouldn’t give it a common meaning like “mother” or “tree”; he’d instead gloss the word as “flagpole sitter,” “hubcap thief,” or something similarly odd. He constantly urged us not to take our homework too seriously and to ask annoying questions of the other professors. I think this lighthearted attitude helped us all to learn better, and it certainly brightened the classroom atmosphere.

How Near This
Class discussion had a remarkable tendency to stray from the planned lesson, though invariably it went in interesting (and linguistically useful) directions. One day, someone in the class mentioned the word metathesis, which is the phenomenon that occurs when two adjacent sounds are swapped (as in “aks” for “ask”). Without missing a beat, the professor said, “Oh yes, this reminds me of spoonerisms,” and proceeded to recite, rapidly and perfectly, the tale of the Mion and the Louse. We were stunned and delighted by his brilliant display of linguistic prowess. It’s not easy to make mistakes like that on purpose. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Origin of the Trophy Cup

Handing it to the winner

Having written several articles based on the theme “Throwing Down the Goblet,” I found myself wondering about trophies. Lots of major sporting competitions award the winning team a trophy in the shape of a cup (or, if you prefer, a bowl, chalice, or goblet)—the Stanley Cup, the America’s Cup, the World Cup, and so on. Trophy cups are also found quite often in collegiate sports, and Harry Potter fans will of course remember the House Cup as the highly coveted award for the house that has accumulated the most points during a given term. Often, though not always, tradition dictates that a single trophy cup be passed from one winning team to the next. In individual competitions, by contrast, trophy cups are much less common; designs are based more often on a human (or angelic) figure of some kind.

The Salad Fork of Victory
When you’re rooting for your team to win, say, the World Cup, it’s probably not especially important to you what the actual token of victory is shaped like. The important thing, most competitors and fans would agree, is simply to win—and to have some commemorative token. A cube or sphere or an inscribed toaster oven could just as easily serve this purpose, though without a doubt, larger, more elaborate, and costlier trophies give the winner something further to brag about. All I wanted to know was, why a cup? How did a cup, of all things, come to symbolize competitive victory? [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Cleopatra's Wager

The most expensive meal in history

A news article mentioned a hotel bar in New York whose drink menu includes a US$10,000 drink called “Martini on the Rock.” That works out to about $5 for the gin, vermouth, and olives—and $9,995 for the loose diamond sitting at the bottom of the glass. Patrons must order the drink three days in advance, and meet with a jeweler to pick out the perfect stone. The first person to order this drink paid a bit extra—$13,000—and instead of a loose stone, selected a 1.85-carat diamond engagement ring. (His girlfriend said yes.) Perhaps unknown to the hotel’s proprietors, this extravagant beverage has a fascinating historical precedent.

Et Tu, Cleo?
The year was 41 B.C. Mark Antony, one of the rulers of Rome, summoned Egyptian queen Cleopatra VII for an audience at Tarsus (in present-day Turkey). Antony ostensibly wanted Cleopatra to answer charges that she had aided Cassius, who had conspired with Brutus to assassinate Julius Caesar. But most people believe the real reason for the meeting was that Antony wanted Egyptian aid for an upcoming military campaign, and besides, he had the hots for Cleopatra. [Article Continues…]

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