From the archives…

Eye-to-Eye Video

Solving the eye contact problem

Perched atop my computer is a shiny, high-tech video camera. Through the miracles of modern technology, I can have live video chats with friends or business associates on the other side of the country or the other side of the world, without even paying long-distance phone charges. Although I could opt for an audio-only conversation or even the text-only format of email or instant messaging, there’s something about seeing another person’s face that makes communication much richer and more satisfying. Using similar technology, I’ve participated in countless videoconferences involving multiple people in each of two or more locations, using cameras mounted on large video monitors and special microphones so that we can all see and hear each other. This is all good. But there’s one thing about the current state of the art in video communication that still bothers me greatly: the inability to make eye contact with the person or people on the other end. This was never a problem on Star Trek, which was of course the source of all my technological expectations.

Look at Me When You Say That
If you have ever tried video chats or videoconferencing yourself, you undoubtedly know what I mean. If not, let me describe what’s going on. The camera that’s pointing at your face is positioned above, below, or to the side of your display. This means the angle at which you’re viewing the screen is different from the angle at which the camera (and therefore the person on the other end) sees you—an effect known as parallax. Only if you were looking directly into the camera would the viewer have the impression you’re looking into his or her eyes. As a result, while you see your friend’s image on the screen, your friend appears to be looking down (or in some direction other than right at you), and you appear the same way on your friend’s screen. You could, of course, position the camera directly in front of your own screen, but then, the camera itself would block your view of the person on the other end. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

White LEDs

How to make a blue light special

Thirty years ago, the most interesting thing I knew of was the digital watch. Never mind that digital watches were harder to read than analog watches, that they went through a set of batteries every few weeks, that they cost a small fortune. These things were not important. What was important was cutting-edge style. You could now wear a computerized device on your wrist that, at the press of a button, would display the time in glowing red LED numerals! How cool was that? When my dad got his first digital watch—a huge, clunky thing—I was deeply envious that he had the best toy in the house.

Just a few years later, though, digital watches had moved into the mainstream. I distinctly remember, as a nine-year-old in 1976, saving my allowance to buy my very own $20 digital watch. I was the first kid in my school to have one, the envy of all my friends. (Yes, my geek roots go way back.) It would be a few years yet before liquid-crystal displays (LCDs) became common; in the meantime, I was thrilled to have a status symbol courtesy of LEDs. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Grass Photographs

Photosynthetic art

When I was about 12 (give or take a couple of years), I had what I thought was a fantastic idea. I was going to build myself a volcano. I’m not talking about a little model made out of clay with vinegar and baking soda for the special effects. I wanted to construct a dirt cone in the backyard that was hollow inside and large enough to use as a clubhouse. I was a bit sketchy on the actual structural details, but I figured I’d start by digging a nice big pit, then add some sort of frame and cover it over with the dirt I’d removed previously. So I got an old piece of garden hose and formed it into a circle about 15 feet (5m) in diameter on the lawn to mark the perimeter of the volcano. The actual digging turned out to be a lot harder than I’d imagined—so hard, in fact, that after shoveling about two scoops of dirt I decided I’d better take a break. Weeks later, when I still hadn’t resumed my project, my mother told me to get that hose out of the middle of the yard, and while I was at it, mow the lawn. Reluctantly, I put the hose away, only to find it had left an unsightly yellow ring on the grass. It looked as though a flying saucer had landed, and the ring didn’t fade until the following spring.

I was embarrassed at both my inability to build my volcano and the condition of our lawn. It never occurred to me that with a bit more effort, I could have turned my blunder into a huge piece of art—say, a smiley face or a basketball. Just as well; I think my parents would have frowned on that. But nowadays, grass art—based on the very same principle I unwittingly discovered—has reached an exceptional level of sophistication, as artists create giant, stunningly detailed photographs on living grass. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Lightsabres

The myth and technology of the Jedi weapon

Like most people, I thoroughly enjoyed the three original Star Wars films, and like most people, I found the prequel installments rather disappointing. The special effects and visual quality were dramatically improved, but the stories left much to be desired, the acting was mediocre, and the writing had none of the intensity or sparkle of the originals. After “Episode I: The Phantom Menace” appeared, I was discussing it with my friend Johanna. We spent a lot of time complaining about Jar Jar Binks, the interminable pod race sequence, and the complete absence of memorable dialogue. But as we talked, I realized that despite my criticism, there was still something about the film that inspired me. So I said, “Even considering all these problems, be honest. When you left the theater, didn’t you want to be a Jedi knight?” Johanna smiled sheepishly and said, “Well, yeah, of course!” Me too.

That’s not to say I’d record my religion as “Jedi” on a census form—Star Wars is, after all, just a story. Still, Jedi knights are very cool, in the way comic-book superheroes are. They have mysterious telepathic and telekinetic powers; they are expert fighters; they nearly always manage to save the day. But the best thing about Jedi knights is that they carry what they consider a simple, low-tech weapon: a lightsabre. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Light Pollution

Urban assault on the night sky

I used to go for a walk every night. It was a pleasant habit—exercise, fresh air, quiet time alone to think. I made a point, whenever possible, of walking in an area away from the city lights, where the sky was dark enough that I could get a good look at the stars. I knew how to pick out some of the constellations, though I could never quite understand how anyone could see a goat or an archer in the patterns of stars. Seeing shapes in clouds is one thing, but mentally connecting the dots to form a complex picture didn’t really work for me. That’s not to say I didn’t see anything in the stars, though. As I looked at a particular star, I would think about the possibility of life in outer space, the chance that a planet circling that star may be home to people like me—or unfathomably different beings. I’d think about how Earth is just another one of those countless planets and the sun just another one of those countless stars. And picking my favorite star of the moment, I’d say to myself, “Someday I’ll find a way to go there.”

Looking at the stars and thinking about them in this way always had a very calming effect on me. I felt as though it gave me a sense of proportion, that it put my own crises and ambitions in perspective. It didn’t make me feel insignificantly small; instead, it made me feel somehow privileged to be able to see and understand what may be out there, and to realize I’m a part of something so big. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Pastis

The noble successor to absinthe

It’s all Peter Mayle’s fault. Before I fell under his nefarious influence, I had very simple tastes. Food was food; a burger and fries eaten on the run was a perfectly satisfactory dining experience. But then I read A Year in Provence and its sequels, books that tell colorful tales about ordinary life in the southern French countryside. To hear Mayle describe life in Provence, every waking hour is concerned with acquiring, preparing, or eating food. His descriptions of wonderfully rich food and drink, enjoyed course after course in meals that stretch for hours, are sensual to the point of being called erotic. You can just taste the foie gras, the truffles, the escargots as you read. For impressionable minds like mine, there was only one possible outcome. I became a French food snob. And along my path to culinary enlightenment, I felt it necessary to sample—indeed, become somewhat expert on—a variety of French beverages. One drink that receives quite prominent treatment in Mayle’s books is pastis, which is as good a place to start as any.

Pastis is a distilled spirit made from a blend of herbs. The flavor is predominantly that of anise, thus putting it in the same general class as sambuca and ouzo. It is commonly consumed as an aperitif—sort of a liquid, alcoholic appetizer—and in France, where it’s most popular, the custom is to dilute it at the table with about five parts of cold water. The ritual of adding the water, which causes the translucent yellowish liquid to turn cloudy, is part of the fun of drinking pastis. But the most interesting thing about pastis is its history. That it should exist at all is a bit of an accident. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Pastis

The noble successor to absinthe

It’s all Peter Mayle’s fault. Before I fell under his nefarious influence, I had very simple tastes. Food was food; a burger and fries eaten on the run was a perfectly satisfactory dining experience. But then I read A Year in Provence and its sequels, books that tell colorful tales about ordinary life in the southern French countryside. To hear Mayle describe life in Provence, every waking hour is concerned with acquiring, preparing, or eating food. His descriptions of wonderfully rich food and drink, enjoyed course after course in meals that stretch for hours, are sensual to the point of being called erotic. You can just taste the foie gras, the truffles, the escargots as you read. For impressionable minds like mine, there was only one possible outcome. I became a French food snob. And along my path to culinary enlightenment, I felt it necessary to sample—indeed, become somewhat expert on—a variety of French beverages. One drink that receives quite prominent treatment in Mayle’s books is pastis, which is as good a place to start as any.

Pastis is a distilled spirit made from a blend of herbs. The flavor is predominantly that of anise, thus putting it in the same general class as sambuca and ouzo. It is commonly consumed as an aperitif—sort of a liquid, alcoholic appetizer—and in France, where it’s most popular, the custom is to dilute it at the table with about five parts of cold water. The ritual of adding the water, which causes the translucent yellowish liquid to turn cloudy, is part of the fun of drinking pastis. But the most interesting thing about pastis is its history. That it should exist at all is a bit of an accident. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Peanut Milk

The magic peanut elixir

Every child who grows up in the United States hears the story of George Washington Carver, a former slave who became a botanist and agriculturalist. Carver is best known for devising over 300 uses for peanuts—from ink to glue to soap, not to mention a great many recipes for peanut-based foods. Although I’ve often wondered why I don’t see peanut paint or peanut insecticide at my local hardware store, I have the utmost respect for Carver’s discoveries and for the versatility of this humble legume.

Peanuts have got to be one of my top ten favorite foods. I love peanuts in or on chocolate, ice cream, Pad Thai, satays, soups, sauces, and just about everywhere else. They’re especially good on airplanes (which otherwise tend to have a rather metallic taste). So when I heard about a peanut-based beverage that also reputedly had fantastic health benefits, I couldn’t wait to try it. The product in question is the suspiciously named Signs and Wonders brand peanut milk, developed right here in San Francisco. Although you can buy it from a number of small stores, the best place to get it is the KK Cafe near the corner of Haight and Divisadero Streets, where it was invented. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Dvorak Keyboard Controversy

Chasing QWERTY

When I was first learning to type, many years ago, I asked the same question everyone else asks: why are the keys arranged so stupidly? Why aren’t they laid out in a more logical order, as in, just to take one random example, alphabetically? The answer I’ve heard countless times is that the first typewriter keyboards were arranged alphabetically, but that caused mechanical problems—once typists became reasonably proficient, the keys jammed frequently because the hammers corresponding to certain frequently used letter sequences were too close together. As a result, so the story goes, the QWERTY layout was designed to prevent jamming by moving those letters farther apart, thus slowing down the typists to a speed the machine could handle. Meanwhile, a more sensible and efficient layout called the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard has been around for a long time, but never became very popular because QWERTY simply had too much momentum in the marketplace.

That story has frequently been used (even by me) as an example of how an inferior, inefficient design came to be the standard—and remained so, long after the original reasons for its success became irrelevant. But the truth is more complicated and surprisingly controversial. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Palais Idéal

The postman’s palace

The topic of weird, elaborate structures built by wealthy eccentrics has come up repeatedly here at Interesting Thing of the Day—think of the Winchester Mystery House, Neuschwanstein Castle, and Hearst Castle, for instance. Today we add to that list a palace constructed in its entirety by an eccentric of modest means: a postman named Ferdinand Cheval.

The story begins in 1879. Cheval, then 43 years old, had been working as a rural mail carrier in the southeast of France for 12 years. Because his daily routine involved walking about 20 miles (32km), mostly in solitude, he did a lot of daydreaming. One day (perhaps while his mind was elsewhere), he tripped over a small limestone rock. He noticed that the rock was oddly and beautifully shaped, so he wrapped it up in his handkerchief, put it in his pocket, and took it home with him. The next day, he went back to the same spot and found lots of other interesting stones. He recalled a striking dream he’d had in 1864, in which he’d built a huge castle of stone. Right then and there, he decided to make his dream a reality: he made it his life’s mission to collect enough stones to construct that castle. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Planning Your Own Funeral

Having the last laugh first

When my mother returned from a vacation to Florida with her sister a number of months ago, I called to ask how it went. “Oh, we had the best time!” she said. “We spent most of the trip planning our funerals. It was hilarious!” Well, that wasn’t quite what I was expecting to hear. On previous vacations my mom has gone on cruises, even tried parasailing, and I thought I had a pretty good idea of what activities she considered fun. Funeral planning was a bit of a surprise. It’s not that she’s ill or expecting to die soon. But, as she put it, “If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.”

I’ve seen some of those late-night commercials trying to sell funeral insurance, with the idea being that you can save your grieving loved ones the considerable expense associated with funerals and burial. But that wasn’t what my mother had in mind at all. (In fact, she made a point of saying that since she’d relieved the family of the burden of funeral planning, the least we could do is pay for it!) Rather, she’d gone to some local funeral parlors and asked them for pre-planning forms she could fill out, detailing her background and family contact information, and specifying her wishes for things like burial versus cremation, type of casket, a minister to preside over the ceremony, and so on. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Cochineal

Insect-based color

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

When I was a kid, there was a time when artificial red food dyes came under intense scrutiny because of their purported health risks. In 1976, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned the dye FD&C Red #2 because scientific studies showed it had carcinogenic effects on female rats. In response to the public concern about red food coloring, food manufacturers discontinued some of their red products, even if they didn’t contain Red #2. I remember this clearly because it meant that certain types of candy (such as M&Ms) no longer included red-colored pieces, and that I avoided any red candies I came across. More recently, another type of red food dye, FD&C #40, has been linked to increased hyperactivity in children, although it remains on the list of FDA-approved color additives.

Because of the controversy surrounding these artificial dyes, some food manufacturers have turned to another source of red coloring. Known as cochineal, or in some forms, carmine, this dye, produced from a type of insect native to South America and Mexico called the cochineal, has a history that goes back hundreds of years. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Tiki

The imaginary Polynesian culture

One day last summer I walked into one of my favorite mom-and-pop variety shops in San Francisco and saw a big display of everything Tiki—a Tiki bar, Tiki glasses, Tiki masks, Tiki statues, Tiki books. My initial reaction was, “Ah, another cheesy American fad is reborn,” followed quickly by, “Cool! I need to own this stuff.” What can I say? I’m a sucker for faux culture, especially exotic faux culture—particularly when it involves interesting drinks. But I soon realized that I had only ever heard the word “Tiki” used as an adjective. I didn’t know what a Tiki actually was. I could identify Tiki-themed merchandise easily enough, but I wasn’t quite clear what culture it was supposed to represent. So I decided to do some research.

My first step, of course, was to watch the film “Pirates of the Caribbean.” Other than being set in the wrong ocean, it was a good way to get those Tiki juices flowing. After all, it does involve islands and rum. But it made me hearken back to the attraction of the same name that I’ve visited at both Walt Disney World and Disneyland. This, in turn, reminded me of yet another notorious Disney attraction which is also populated by those ubiquitous Audio-Animatronic characters—namely, the Enchanted Tiki Room. Ah, now we’re getting somewhere. So my next stop was the closest approximation of the Enchanted Tiki Room I could find in San Francisco: a restaurant called the Tonga Room. And what luck: just in time for happy hour and an all-you-can-eat buffet. At last I was getting somewhere. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Icewine

How a little frost can do wonders for wine

I may not be the most agriculturally sophisticated person in the world, but I always felt pretty confident in my basic belief that frost was a Bad Thing when it came to growing produce. If whatever crop you’re growing hasn’t been harvested by the time temperatures dip below freezing, serious damage can be done, right? Common sense, however, frequently turns out to be wrong. At least for grapes, freezing is eagerly anticipated by vintners in certain parts of the world. It’s a key factor in the production of an expensive variety of dessert wine known as icewine.

Grapes are most comfortably grown in a Mediterranean climate—areas with hot, dry summers and mild, wet winters, such as France, Italy, Spain, Australia, and parts of California. But plenty of excellent wines also come from Germany, Austria, and the southeastern and southwestern corners of Canada, all places where freezing temperatures in winter are quite normal. And these are exactly the regions where icewine is produced. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Paris Plages

Bringing the beach to Paris

August in Paris is traditionally the time when residents head off for their month-long annual vacations. However, the city is by no means empty. For millions of residents and tourists, life goes on as usual, but there’s still that seasonal urge to spread out a towel on the sand and soak up some sun. Paris is nearly 125 miles (200km) from the coast, but every summer since 2002, a full-blown beach has appeared right in the center of town, courtesy of the city government and corporate sponsors.

Paris Plages is the collective name of a series of sites set up around the city for summertime activities; they’re in operation for roughly a month each year from late July to late August. The idea was the brainchild of Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoë, who has taken numerous steps to make the city more accessible to pedestrians and cyclists. The original and best-known Paris Plage is constructed along the right bank of the Seine River, running almost 2 miles (3km) from the Louvre to Pont Sully (the Sully Bridge). What is normally the Georges Pompidou Expressway is closed to traffic (much to the dismay of commuters) and turned into a pedestrian walkway. Along the side of the road farthest from the river the actual beaches are installed—3000 tons of sand trucked in and trucked back out every year. In between sections of faux beach are areas devoted to other activities for both adults and children, such as rock climbing, rollerblading, and even t’ai chi. There are also restrooms, showers, first aid and police stations, and several mist zones where people can stand in a constant fine spray of water to cool off. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Eye-to-Eye Video

Solving the eye contact problem

Perched atop my computer is a shiny, high-tech video camera. Through the miracles of modern technology, I can have live video chats with friends or business associates on the other side of the country or the other side of the world, without even paying long-distance phone charges. Although I could opt for an audio-only conversation or even the text-only format of email or instant messaging, there’s something about seeing another person’s face that makes communication much richer and more satisfying. Using similar technology, I’ve participated in countless videoconferences involving multiple people in each of two or more locations, using cameras mounted on large video monitors and special microphones so that we can all see and hear each other. This is all good. But there’s one thing about the current state of the art in video communication that still bothers me greatly: the inability to make eye contact with the person or people on the other end. This was never a problem on Star Trek, which was of course the source of all my technological expectations.

Look at Me When You Say That
If you have ever tried video chats or videoconferencing yourself, you undoubtedly know what I mean. If not, let me describe what’s going on. The camera that’s pointing at your face is positioned above, below, or to the side of your display. This means the angle at which you’re viewing the screen is different from the angle at which the camera (and therefore the person on the other end) sees you—an effect known as parallax. Only if you were looking directly into the camera would the viewer have the impression you’re looking into his or her eyes. As a result, while you see your friend’s image on the screen, your friend appears to be looking down (or in some direction other than right at you), and you appear the same way on your friend’s screen. You could, of course, position the camera directly in front of your own screen, but then, the camera itself would block your view of the person on the other end. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

White LEDs

How to make a blue light special

Thirty years ago, the most interesting thing I knew of was the digital watch. Never mind that digital watches were harder to read than analog watches, that they went through a set of batteries every few weeks, that they cost a small fortune. These things were not important. What was important was cutting-edge style. You could now wear a computerized device on your wrist that, at the press of a button, would display the time in glowing red LED numerals! How cool was that? When my dad got his first digital watch—a huge, clunky thing—I was deeply envious that he had the best toy in the house.

Just a few years later, though, digital watches had moved into the mainstream. I distinctly remember, as a nine-year-old in 1976, saving my allowance to buy my very own $20 digital watch. I was the first kid in my school to have one, the envy of all my friends. (Yes, my geek roots go way back.) It would be a few years yet before liquid-crystal displays (LCDs) became common; in the meantime, I was thrilled to have a status symbol courtesy of LEDs. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Grass Photographs

Photosynthetic art

When I was about 12 (give or take a couple of years), I had what I thought was a fantastic idea. I was going to build myself a volcano. I’m not talking about a little model made out of clay with vinegar and baking soda for the special effects. I wanted to construct a dirt cone in the backyard that was hollow inside and large enough to use as a clubhouse. I was a bit sketchy on the actual structural details, but I figured I’d start by digging a nice big pit, then add some sort of frame and cover it over with the dirt I’d removed previously. So I got an old piece of garden hose and formed it into a circle about 15 feet (5m) in diameter on the lawn to mark the perimeter of the volcano. The actual digging turned out to be a lot harder than I’d imagined—so hard, in fact, that after shoveling about two scoops of dirt I decided I’d better take a break. Weeks later, when I still hadn’t resumed my project, my mother told me to get that hose out of the middle of the yard, and while I was at it, mow the lawn. Reluctantly, I put the hose away, only to find it had left an unsightly yellow ring on the grass. It looked as though a flying saucer had landed, and the ring didn’t fade until the following spring.

I was embarrassed at both my inability to build my volcano and the condition of our lawn. It never occurred to me that with a bit more effort, I could have turned my blunder into a huge piece of art—say, a smiley face or a basketball. Just as well; I think my parents would have frowned on that. But nowadays, grass art—based on the very same principle I unwittingly discovered—has reached an exceptional level of sophistication, as artists create giant, stunningly detailed photographs on living grass. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Lightsabres

The myth and technology of the Jedi weapon

Like most people, I thoroughly enjoyed the three original Star Wars films, and like most people, I found the prequel installments rather disappointing. The special effects and visual quality were dramatically improved, but the stories left much to be desired, the acting was mediocre, and the writing had none of the intensity or sparkle of the originals. After “Episode I: The Phantom Menace” appeared, I was discussing it with my friend Johanna. We spent a lot of time complaining about Jar Jar Binks, the interminable pod race sequence, and the complete absence of memorable dialogue. But as we talked, I realized that despite my criticism, there was still something about the film that inspired me. So I said, “Even considering all these problems, be honest. When you left the theater, didn’t you want to be a Jedi knight?” Johanna smiled sheepishly and said, “Well, yeah, of course!” Me too.

That’s not to say I’d record my religion as “Jedi” on a census form—Star Wars is, after all, just a story. Still, Jedi knights are very cool, in the way comic-book superheroes are. They have mysterious telepathic and telekinetic powers; they are expert fighters; they nearly always manage to save the day. But the best thing about Jedi knights is that they carry what they consider a simple, low-tech weapon: a lightsabre. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Light Pollution

Urban assault on the night sky

I used to go for a walk every night. It was a pleasant habit—exercise, fresh air, quiet time alone to think. I made a point, whenever possible, of walking in an area away from the city lights, where the sky was dark enough that I could get a good look at the stars. I knew how to pick out some of the constellations, though I could never quite understand how anyone could see a goat or an archer in the patterns of stars. Seeing shapes in clouds is one thing, but mentally connecting the dots to form a complex picture didn’t really work for me. That’s not to say I didn’t see anything in the stars, though. As I looked at a particular star, I would think about the possibility of life in outer space, the chance that a planet circling that star may be home to people like me—or unfathomably different beings. I’d think about how Earth is just another one of those countless planets and the sun just another one of those countless stars. And picking my favorite star of the moment, I’d say to myself, “Someday I’ll find a way to go there.”

Looking at the stars and thinking about them in this way always had a very calming effect on me. I felt as though it gave me a sense of proportion, that it put my own crises and ambitions in perspective. It didn’t make me feel insignificantly small; instead, it made me feel somehow privileged to be able to see and understand what may be out there, and to realize I’m a part of something so big. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Pastis

The noble successor to absinthe

It’s all Peter Mayle’s fault. Before I fell under his nefarious influence, I had very simple tastes. Food was food; a burger and fries eaten on the run was a perfectly satisfactory dining experience. But then I read A Year in Provence and its sequels, books that tell colorful tales about ordinary life in the southern French countryside. To hear Mayle describe life in Provence, every waking hour is concerned with acquiring, preparing, or eating food. His descriptions of wonderfully rich food and drink, enjoyed course after course in meals that stretch for hours, are sensual to the point of being called erotic. You can just taste the foie gras, the truffles, the escargots as you read. For impressionable minds like mine, there was only one possible outcome. I became a French food snob. And along my path to culinary enlightenment, I felt it necessary to sample—indeed, become somewhat expert on—a variety of French beverages. One drink that receives quite prominent treatment in Mayle’s books is pastis, which is as good a place to start as any.

Pastis is a distilled spirit made from a blend of herbs. The flavor is predominantly that of anise, thus putting it in the same general class as sambuca and ouzo. It is commonly consumed as an aperitif—sort of a liquid, alcoholic appetizer—and in France, where it’s most popular, the custom is to dilute it at the table with about five parts of cold water. The ritual of adding the water, which causes the translucent yellowish liquid to turn cloudy, is part of the fun of drinking pastis. But the most interesting thing about pastis is its history. That it should exist at all is a bit of an accident. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Peanut Milk

The magic peanut elixir

Every child who grows up in the United States hears the story of George Washington Carver, a former slave who became a botanist and agriculturalist. Carver is best known for devising over 300 uses for peanuts—from ink to glue to soap, not to mention a great many recipes for peanut-based foods. Although I’ve often wondered why I don’t see peanut paint or peanut insecticide at my local hardware store, I have the utmost respect for Carver’s discoveries and for the versatility of this humble legume.

Peanuts have got to be one of my top ten favorite foods. I love peanuts in or on chocolate, ice cream, Pad Thai, satays, soups, sauces, and just about everywhere else. They’re especially good on airplanes (which otherwise tend to have a rather metallic taste). So when I heard about a peanut-based beverage that also reputedly had fantastic health benefits, I couldn’t wait to try it. The product in question is the suspiciously named Signs and Wonders brand peanut milk, developed right here in San Francisco. Although you can buy it from a number of small stores, the best place to get it is the KK Cafe near the corner of Haight and Divisadero Streets, where it was invented. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Dvorak Keyboard Controversy

Chasing QWERTY

When I was first learning to type, many years ago, I asked the same question everyone else asks: why are the keys arranged so stupidly? Why aren’t they laid out in a more logical order, as in, just to take one random example, alphabetically? The answer I’ve heard countless times is that the first typewriter keyboards were arranged alphabetically, but that caused mechanical problems—once typists became reasonably proficient, the keys jammed frequently because the hammers corresponding to certain frequently used letter sequences were too close together. As a result, so the story goes, the QWERTY layout was designed to prevent jamming by moving those letters farther apart, thus slowing down the typists to a speed the machine could handle. Meanwhile, a more sensible and efficient layout called the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard has been around for a long time, but never became very popular because QWERTY simply had too much momentum in the marketplace.

That story has frequently been used (even by me) as an example of how an inferior, inefficient design came to be the standard—and remained so, long after the original reasons for its success became irrelevant. But the truth is more complicated and surprisingly controversial. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Palais Idéal

The postman’s palace

The topic of weird, elaborate structures built by wealthy eccentrics has come up repeatedly here at Interesting Thing of the Day—think of the Winchester Mystery House, Neuschwanstein Castle, and Hearst Castle, for instance. Today we add to that list a palace constructed in its entirety by an eccentric of modest means: a postman named Ferdinand Cheval.

The story begins in 1879. Cheval, then 43 years old, had been working as a rural mail carrier in the southeast of France for 12 years. Because his daily routine involved walking about 20 miles (32km), mostly in solitude, he did a lot of daydreaming. One day (perhaps while his mind was elsewhere), he tripped over a small limestone rock. He noticed that the rock was oddly and beautifully shaped, so he wrapped it up in his handkerchief, put it in his pocket, and took it home with him. The next day, he went back to the same spot and found lots of other interesting stones. He recalled a striking dream he’d had in 1864, in which he’d built a huge castle of stone. Right then and there, he decided to make his dream a reality: he made it his life’s mission to collect enough stones to construct that castle. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Planning Your Own Funeral

Having the last laugh first

When my mother returned from a vacation to Florida with her sister a number of months ago, I called to ask how it went. “Oh, we had the best time!” she said. “We spent most of the trip planning our funerals. It was hilarious!” Well, that wasn’t quite what I was expecting to hear. On previous vacations my mom has gone on cruises, even tried parasailing, and I thought I had a pretty good idea of what activities she considered fun. Funeral planning was a bit of a surprise. It’s not that she’s ill or expecting to die soon. But, as she put it, “If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.”

I’ve seen some of those late-night commercials trying to sell funeral insurance, with the idea being that you can save your grieving loved ones the considerable expense associated with funerals and burial. But that wasn’t what my mother had in mind at all. (In fact, she made a point of saying that since she’d relieved the family of the burden of funeral planning, the least we could do is pay for it!) Rather, she’d gone to some local funeral parlors and asked them for pre-planning forms she could fill out, detailing her background and family contact information, and specifying her wishes for things like burial versus cremation, type of casket, a minister to preside over the ceremony, and so on. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Cochineal

Insect-based color

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

When I was a kid, there was a time when artificial red food dyes came under intense scrutiny because of their purported health risks. In 1976, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned the dye FD&C Red #2 because scientific studies showed it had carcinogenic effects on female rats. In response to the public concern about red food coloring, food manufacturers discontinued some of their red products, even if they didn’t contain Red #2. I remember this clearly because it meant that certain types of candy (such as M&Ms) no longer included red-colored pieces, and that I avoided any red candies I came across. More recently, another type of red food dye, FD&C #40, has been linked to increased hyperactivity in children, although it remains on the list of FDA-approved color additives.

Because of the controversy surrounding these artificial dyes, some food manufacturers have turned to another source of red coloring. Known as cochineal, or in some forms, carmine, this dye, produced from a type of insect native to South America and Mexico called the cochineal, has a history that goes back hundreds of years. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Tiki

The imaginary Polynesian culture

One day last summer I walked into one of my favorite mom-and-pop variety shops in San Francisco and saw a big display of everything Tiki—a Tiki bar, Tiki glasses, Tiki masks, Tiki statues, Tiki books. My initial reaction was, “Ah, another cheesy American fad is reborn,” followed quickly by, “Cool! I need to own this stuff.” What can I say? I’m a sucker for faux culture, especially exotic faux culture—particularly when it involves interesting drinks. But I soon realized that I had only ever heard the word “Tiki” used as an adjective. I didn’t know what a Tiki actually was. I could identify Tiki-themed merchandise easily enough, but I wasn’t quite clear what culture it was supposed to represent. So I decided to do some research.

My first step, of course, was to watch the film “Pirates of the Caribbean.” Other than being set in the wrong ocean, it was a good way to get those Tiki juices flowing. After all, it does involve islands and rum. But it made me hearken back to the attraction of the same name that I’ve visited at both Walt Disney World and Disneyland. This, in turn, reminded me of yet another notorious Disney attraction which is also populated by those ubiquitous Audio-Animatronic characters—namely, the Enchanted Tiki Room. Ah, now we’re getting somewhere. So my next stop was the closest approximation of the Enchanted Tiki Room I could find in San Francisco: a restaurant called the Tonga Room. And what luck: just in time for happy hour and an all-you-can-eat buffet. At last I was getting somewhere. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Icewine

How a little frost can do wonders for wine

I may not be the most agriculturally sophisticated person in the world, but I always felt pretty confident in my basic belief that frost was a Bad Thing when it came to growing produce. If whatever crop you’re growing hasn’t been harvested by the time temperatures dip below freezing, serious damage can be done, right? Common sense, however, frequently turns out to be wrong. At least for grapes, freezing is eagerly anticipated by vintners in certain parts of the world. It’s a key factor in the production of an expensive variety of dessert wine known as icewine.

Grapes are most comfortably grown in a Mediterranean climate—areas with hot, dry summers and mild, wet winters, such as France, Italy, Spain, Australia, and parts of California. But plenty of excellent wines also come from Germany, Austria, and the southeastern and southwestern corners of Canada, all places where freezing temperatures in winter are quite normal. And these are exactly the regions where icewine is produced. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Paris Plages

Bringing the beach to Paris

August in Paris is traditionally the time when residents head off for their month-long annual vacations. However, the city is by no means empty. For millions of residents and tourists, life goes on as usual, but there’s still that seasonal urge to spread out a towel on the sand and soak up some sun. Paris is nearly 125 miles (200km) from the coast, but every summer since 2002, a full-blown beach has appeared right in the center of town, courtesy of the city government and corporate sponsors.

Paris Plages is the collective name of a series of sites set up around the city for summertime activities; they’re in operation for roughly a month each year from late July to late August. The idea was the brainchild of Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoë, who has taken numerous steps to make the city more accessible to pedestrians and cyclists. The original and best-known Paris Plage is constructed along the right bank of the Seine River, running almost 2 miles (3km) from the Louvre to Pont Sully (the Sully Bridge). What is normally the Georges Pompidou Expressway is closed to traffic (much to the dismay of commuters) and turned into a pedestrian walkway. Along the side of the road farthest from the river the actual beaches are installed—3000 tons of sand trucked in and trucked back out every year. In between sections of faux beach are areas devoted to other activities for both adults and children, such as rock climbing, rollerblading, and even t’ai chi. There are also restrooms, showers, first aid and police stations, and several mist zones where people can stand in a constant fine spray of water to cool off. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Eye-to-Eye Video

Solving the eye contact problem

Perched atop my computer is a shiny, high-tech video camera. Through the miracles of modern technology, I can have live video chats with friends or business associates on the other side of the country or the other side of the world, without even paying long-distance phone charges. Although I could opt for an audio-only conversation or even the text-only format of email or instant messaging, there’s something about seeing another person’s face that makes communication much richer and more satisfying. Using similar technology, I’ve participated in countless videoconferences involving multiple people in each of two or more locations, using cameras mounted on large video monitors and special microphones so that we can all see and hear each other. This is all good. But there’s one thing about the current state of the art in video communication that still bothers me greatly: the inability to make eye contact with the person or people on the other end. This was never a problem on Star Trek, which was of course the source of all my technological expectations.

Look at Me When You Say That
If you have ever tried video chats or videoconferencing yourself, you undoubtedly know what I mean. If not, let me describe what’s going on. The camera that’s pointing at your face is positioned above, below, or to the side of your display. This means the angle at which you’re viewing the screen is different from the angle at which the camera (and therefore the person on the other end) sees you—an effect known as parallax. Only if you were looking directly into the camera would the viewer have the impression you’re looking into his or her eyes. As a result, while you see your friend’s image on the screen, your friend appears to be looking down (or in some direction other than right at you), and you appear the same way on your friend’s screen. You could, of course, position the camera directly in front of your own screen, but then, the camera itself would block your view of the person on the other end. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

White LEDs

How to make a blue light special

Thirty years ago, the most interesting thing I knew of was the digital watch. Never mind that digital watches were harder to read than analog watches, that they went through a set of batteries every few weeks, that they cost a small fortune. These things were not important. What was important was cutting-edge style. You could now wear a computerized device on your wrist that, at the press of a button, would display the time in glowing red LED numerals! How cool was that? When my dad got his first digital watch—a huge, clunky thing—I was deeply envious that he had the best toy in the house.

Just a few years later, though, digital watches had moved into the mainstream. I distinctly remember, as a nine-year-old in 1976, saving my allowance to buy my very own $20 digital watch. I was the first kid in my school to have one, the envy of all my friends. (Yes, my geek roots go way back.) It would be a few years yet before liquid-crystal displays (LCDs) became common; in the meantime, I was thrilled to have a status symbol courtesy of LEDs. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Grass Photographs

Photosynthetic art

When I was about 12 (give or take a couple of years), I had what I thought was a fantastic idea. I was going to build myself a volcano. I’m not talking about a little model made out of clay with vinegar and baking soda for the special effects. I wanted to construct a dirt cone in the backyard that was hollow inside and large enough to use as a clubhouse. I was a bit sketchy on the actual structural details, but I figured I’d start by digging a nice big pit, then add some sort of frame and cover it over with the dirt I’d removed previously. So I got an old piece of garden hose and formed it into a circle about 15 feet (5m) in diameter on the lawn to mark the perimeter of the volcano. The actual digging turned out to be a lot harder than I’d imagined—so hard, in fact, that after shoveling about two scoops of dirt I decided I’d better take a break. Weeks later, when I still hadn’t resumed my project, my mother told me to get that hose out of the middle of the yard, and while I was at it, mow the lawn. Reluctantly, I put the hose away, only to find it had left an unsightly yellow ring on the grass. It looked as though a flying saucer had landed, and the ring didn’t fade until the following spring.

I was embarrassed at both my inability to build my volcano and the condition of our lawn. It never occurred to me that with a bit more effort, I could have turned my blunder into a huge piece of art—say, a smiley face or a basketball. Just as well; I think my parents would have frowned on that. But nowadays, grass art—based on the very same principle I unwittingly discovered—has reached an exceptional level of sophistication, as artists create giant, stunningly detailed photographs on living grass. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Lightsabres

The myth and technology of the Jedi weapon

Like most people, I thoroughly enjoyed the three original Star Wars films, and like most people, I found the prequel installments rather disappointing. The special effects and visual quality were dramatically improved, but the stories left much to be desired, the acting was mediocre, and the writing had none of the intensity or sparkle of the originals. After “Episode I: The Phantom Menace” appeared, I was discussing it with my friend Johanna. We spent a lot of time complaining about Jar Jar Binks, the interminable pod race sequence, and the complete absence of memorable dialogue. But as we talked, I realized that despite my criticism, there was still something about the film that inspired me. So I said, “Even considering all these problems, be honest. When you left the theater, didn’t you want to be a Jedi knight?” Johanna smiled sheepishly and said, “Well, yeah, of course!” Me too.

That’s not to say I’d record my religion as “Jedi” on a census form—Star Wars is, after all, just a story. Still, Jedi knights are very cool, in the way comic-book superheroes are. They have mysterious telepathic and telekinetic powers; they are expert fighters; they nearly always manage to save the day. But the best thing about Jedi knights is that they carry what they consider a simple, low-tech weapon: a lightsabre. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Light Pollution

Urban assault on the night sky

I used to go for a walk every night. It was a pleasant habit—exercise, fresh air, quiet time alone to think. I made a point, whenever possible, of walking in an area away from the city lights, where the sky was dark enough that I could get a good look at the stars. I knew how to pick out some of the constellations, though I could never quite understand how anyone could see a goat or an archer in the patterns of stars. Seeing shapes in clouds is one thing, but mentally connecting the dots to form a complex picture didn’t really work for me. That’s not to say I didn’t see anything in the stars, though. As I looked at a particular star, I would think about the possibility of life in outer space, the chance that a planet circling that star may be home to people like me—or unfathomably different beings. I’d think about how Earth is just another one of those countless planets and the sun just another one of those countless stars. And picking my favorite star of the moment, I’d say to myself, “Someday I’ll find a way to go there.”

Looking at the stars and thinking about them in this way always had a very calming effect on me. I felt as though it gave me a sense of proportion, that it put my own crises and ambitions in perspective. It didn’t make me feel insignificantly small; instead, it made me feel somehow privileged to be able to see and understand what may be out there, and to realize I’m a part of something so big. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Pastis

The noble successor to absinthe

It’s all Peter Mayle’s fault. Before I fell under his nefarious influence, I had very simple tastes. Food was food; a burger and fries eaten on the run was a perfectly satisfactory dining experience. But then I read A Year in Provence and its sequels, books that tell colorful tales about ordinary life in the southern French countryside. To hear Mayle describe life in Provence, every waking hour is concerned with acquiring, preparing, or eating food. His descriptions of wonderfully rich food and drink, enjoyed course after course in meals that stretch for hours, are sensual to the point of being called erotic. You can just taste the foie gras, the truffles, the escargots as you read. For impressionable minds like mine, there was only one possible outcome. I became a French food snob. And along my path to culinary enlightenment, I felt it necessary to sample—indeed, become somewhat expert on—a variety of French beverages. One drink that receives quite prominent treatment in Mayle’s books is pastis, which is as good a place to start as any.

Pastis is a distilled spirit made from a blend of herbs. The flavor is predominantly that of anise, thus putting it in the same general class as sambuca and ouzo. It is commonly consumed as an aperitif—sort of a liquid, alcoholic appetizer—and in France, where it’s most popular, the custom is to dilute it at the table with about five parts of cold water. The ritual of adding the water, which causes the translucent yellowish liquid to turn cloudy, is part of the fun of drinking pastis. But the most interesting thing about pastis is its history. That it should exist at all is a bit of an accident. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Peanut Milk

The magic peanut elixir

Every child who grows up in the United States hears the story of George Washington Carver, a former slave who became a botanist and agriculturalist. Carver is best known for devising over 300 uses for peanuts—from ink to glue to soap, not to mention a great many recipes for peanut-based foods. Although I’ve often wondered why I don’t see peanut paint or peanut insecticide at my local hardware store, I have the utmost respect for Carver’s discoveries and for the versatility of this humble legume.

Peanuts have got to be one of my top ten favorite foods. I love peanuts in or on chocolate, ice cream, Pad Thai, satays, soups, sauces, and just about everywhere else. They’re especially good on airplanes (which otherwise tend to have a rather metallic taste). So when I heard about a peanut-based beverage that also reputedly had fantastic health benefits, I couldn’t wait to try it. The product in question is the suspiciously named Signs and Wonders brand peanut milk, developed right here in San Francisco. Although you can buy it from a number of small stores, the best place to get it is the KK Cafe near the corner of Haight and Divisadero Streets, where it was invented. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Dvorak Keyboard Controversy

Chasing QWERTY

When I was first learning to type, many years ago, I asked the same question everyone else asks: why are the keys arranged so stupidly? Why aren’t they laid out in a more logical order, as in, just to take one random example, alphabetically? The answer I’ve heard countless times is that the first typewriter keyboards were arranged alphabetically, but that caused mechanical problems—once typists became reasonably proficient, the keys jammed frequently because the hammers corresponding to certain frequently used letter sequences were too close together. As a result, so the story goes, the QWERTY layout was designed to prevent jamming by moving those letters farther apart, thus slowing down the typists to a speed the machine could handle. Meanwhile, a more sensible and efficient layout called the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard has been around for a long time, but never became very popular because QWERTY simply had too much momentum in the marketplace.

That story has frequently been used (even by me) as an example of how an inferior, inefficient design came to be the standard—and remained so, long after the original reasons for its success became irrelevant. But the truth is more complicated and surprisingly controversial. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Palais Idéal

The postman’s palace

The topic of weird, elaborate structures built by wealthy eccentrics has come up repeatedly here at Interesting Thing of the Day—think of the Winchester Mystery House, Neuschwanstein Castle, and Hearst Castle, for instance. Today we add to that list a palace constructed in its entirety by an eccentric of modest means: a postman named Ferdinand Cheval.

The story begins in 1879. Cheval, then 43 years old, had been working as a rural mail carrier in the southeast of France for 12 years. Because his daily routine involved walking about 20 miles (32km), mostly in solitude, he did a lot of daydreaming. One day (perhaps while his mind was elsewhere), he tripped over a small limestone rock. He noticed that the rock was oddly and beautifully shaped, so he wrapped it up in his handkerchief, put it in his pocket, and took it home with him. The next day, he went back to the same spot and found lots of other interesting stones. He recalled a striking dream he’d had in 1864, in which he’d built a huge castle of stone. Right then and there, he decided to make his dream a reality: he made it his life’s mission to collect enough stones to construct that castle. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Planning Your Own Funeral

Having the last laugh first

When my mother returned from a vacation to Florida with her sister a number of months ago, I called to ask how it went. “Oh, we had the best time!” she said. “We spent most of the trip planning our funerals. It was hilarious!” Well, that wasn’t quite what I was expecting to hear. On previous vacations my mom has gone on cruises, even tried parasailing, and I thought I had a pretty good idea of what activities she considered fun. Funeral planning was a bit of a surprise. It’s not that she’s ill or expecting to die soon. But, as she put it, “If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.”

I’ve seen some of those late-night commercials trying to sell funeral insurance, with the idea being that you can save your grieving loved ones the considerable expense associated with funerals and burial. But that wasn’t what my mother had in mind at all. (In fact, she made a point of saying that since she’d relieved the family of the burden of funeral planning, the least we could do is pay for it!) Rather, she’d gone to some local funeral parlors and asked them for pre-planning forms she could fill out, detailing her background and family contact information, and specifying her wishes for things like burial versus cremation, type of casket, a minister to preside over the ceremony, and so on. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Cochineal

Insect-based color

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

When I was a kid, there was a time when artificial red food dyes came under intense scrutiny because of their purported health risks. In 1976, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned the dye FD&C Red #2 because scientific studies showed it had carcinogenic effects on female rats. In response to the public concern about red food coloring, food manufacturers discontinued some of their red products, even if they didn’t contain Red #2. I remember this clearly because it meant that certain types of candy (such as M&Ms) no longer included red-colored pieces, and that I avoided any red candies I came across. More recently, another type of red food dye, FD&C #40, has been linked to increased hyperactivity in children, although it remains on the list of FDA-approved color additives.

Because of the controversy surrounding these artificial dyes, some food manufacturers have turned to another source of red coloring. Known as cochineal, or in some forms, carmine, this dye, produced from a type of insect native to South America and Mexico called the cochineal, has a history that goes back hundreds of years. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Tiki

The imaginary Polynesian culture

One day last summer I walked into one of my favorite mom-and-pop variety shops in San Francisco and saw a big display of everything Tiki—a Tiki bar, Tiki glasses, Tiki masks, Tiki statues, Tiki books. My initial reaction was, “Ah, another cheesy American fad is reborn,” followed quickly by, “Cool! I need to own this stuff.” What can I say? I’m a sucker for faux culture, especially exotic faux culture—particularly when it involves interesting drinks. But I soon realized that I had only ever heard the word “Tiki” used as an adjective. I didn’t know what a Tiki actually was. I could identify Tiki-themed merchandise easily enough, but I wasn’t quite clear what culture it was supposed to represent. So I decided to do some research.

My first step, of course, was to watch the film “Pirates of the Caribbean.” Other than being set in the wrong ocean, it was a good way to get those Tiki juices flowing. After all, it does involve islands and rum. But it made me hearken back to the attraction of the same name that I’ve visited at both Walt Disney World and Disneyland. This, in turn, reminded me of yet another notorious Disney attraction which is also populated by those ubiquitous Audio-Animatronic characters—namely, the Enchanted Tiki Room. Ah, now we’re getting somewhere. So my next stop was the closest approximation of the Enchanted Tiki Room I could find in San Francisco: a restaurant called the Tonga Room. And what luck: just in time for happy hour and an all-you-can-eat buffet. At last I was getting somewhere. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Icewine

How a little frost can do wonders for wine

I may not be the most agriculturally sophisticated person in the world, but I always felt pretty confident in my basic belief that frost was a Bad Thing when it came to growing produce. If whatever crop you’re growing hasn’t been harvested by the time temperatures dip below freezing, serious damage can be done, right? Common sense, however, frequently turns out to be wrong. At least for grapes, freezing is eagerly anticipated by vintners in certain parts of the world. It’s a key factor in the production of an expensive variety of dessert wine known as icewine.

Grapes are most comfortably grown in a Mediterranean climate—areas with hot, dry summers and mild, wet winters, such as France, Italy, Spain, Australia, and parts of California. But plenty of excellent wines also come from Germany, Austria, and the southeastern and southwestern corners of Canada, all places where freezing temperatures in winter are quite normal. And these are exactly the regions where icewine is produced. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Paris Plages

Bringing the beach to Paris

August in Paris is traditionally the time when residents head off for their month-long annual vacations. However, the city is by no means empty. For millions of residents and tourists, life goes on as usual, but there’s still that seasonal urge to spread out a towel on the sand and soak up some sun. Paris is nearly 125 miles (200km) from the coast, but every summer since 2002, a full-blown beach has appeared right in the center of town, courtesy of the city government and corporate sponsors.

Paris Plages is the collective name of a series of sites set up around the city for summertime activities; they’re in operation for roughly a month each year from late July to late August. The idea was the brainchild of Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoë, who has taken numerous steps to make the city more accessible to pedestrians and cyclists. The original and best-known Paris Plage is constructed along the right bank of the Seine River, running almost 2 miles (3km) from the Louvre to Pont Sully (the Sully Bridge). What is normally the Georges Pompidou Expressway is closed to traffic (much to the dismay of commuters) and turned into a pedestrian walkway. Along the side of the road farthest from the river the actual beaches are installed—3000 tons of sand trucked in and trucked back out every year. In between sections of faux beach are areas devoted to other activities for both adults and children, such as rock climbing, rollerblading, and even t’ai chi. There are also restrooms, showers, first aid and police stations, and several mist zones where people can stand in a constant fine spray of water to cool off. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Eye-to-Eye Video

Solving the eye contact problem

Perched atop my computer is a shiny, high-tech video camera. Through the miracles of modern technology, I can have live video chats with friends or business associates on the other side of the country or the other side of the world, without even paying long-distance phone charges. Although I could opt for an audio-only conversation or even the text-only format of email or instant messaging, there’s something about seeing another person’s face that makes communication much richer and more satisfying. Using similar technology, I’ve participated in countless videoconferences involving multiple people in each of two or more locations, using cameras mounted on large video monitors and special microphones so that we can all see and hear each other. This is all good. But there’s one thing about the current state of the art in video communication that still bothers me greatly: the inability to make eye contact with the person or people on the other end. This was never a problem on Star Trek, which was of course the source of all my technological expectations.

Look at Me When You Say That
If you have ever tried video chats or videoconferencing yourself, you undoubtedly know what I mean. If not, let me describe what’s going on. The camera that’s pointing at your face is positioned above, below, or to the side of your display. This means the angle at which you’re viewing the screen is different from the angle at which the camera (and therefore the person on the other end) sees you—an effect known as parallax. Only if you were looking directly into the camera would the viewer have the impression you’re looking into his or her eyes. As a result, while you see your friend’s image on the screen, your friend appears to be looking down (or in some direction other than right at you), and you appear the same way on your friend’s screen. You could, of course, position the camera directly in front of your own screen, but then, the camera itself would block your view of the person on the other end. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

White LEDs

How to make a blue light special

Thirty years ago, the most interesting thing I knew of was the digital watch. Never mind that digital watches were harder to read than analog watches, that they went through a set of batteries every few weeks, that they cost a small fortune. These things were not important. What was important was cutting-edge style. You could now wear a computerized device on your wrist that, at the press of a button, would display the time in glowing red LED numerals! How cool was that? When my dad got his first digital watch—a huge, clunky thing—I was deeply envious that he had the best toy in the house.

Just a few years later, though, digital watches had moved into the mainstream. I distinctly remember, as a nine-year-old in 1976, saving my allowance to buy my very own $20 digital watch. I was the first kid in my school to have one, the envy of all my friends. (Yes, my geek roots go way back.) It would be a few years yet before liquid-crystal displays (LCDs) became common; in the meantime, I was thrilled to have a status symbol courtesy of LEDs. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Grass Photographs

Photosynthetic art

When I was about 12 (give or take a couple of years), I had what I thought was a fantastic idea. I was going to build myself a volcano. I’m not talking about a little model made out of clay with vinegar and baking soda for the special effects. I wanted to construct a dirt cone in the backyard that was hollow inside and large enough to use as a clubhouse. I was a bit sketchy on the actual structural details, but I figured I’d start by digging a nice big pit, then add some sort of frame and cover it over with the dirt I’d removed previously. So I got an old piece of garden hose and formed it into a circle about 15 feet (5m) in diameter on the lawn to mark the perimeter of the volcano. The actual digging turned out to be a lot harder than I’d imagined—so hard, in fact, that after shoveling about two scoops of dirt I decided I’d better take a break. Weeks later, when I still hadn’t resumed my project, my mother told me to get that hose out of the middle of the yard, and while I was at it, mow the lawn. Reluctantly, I put the hose away, only to find it had left an unsightly yellow ring on the grass. It looked as though a flying saucer had landed, and the ring didn’t fade until the following spring.

I was embarrassed at both my inability to build my volcano and the condition of our lawn. It never occurred to me that with a bit more effort, I could have turned my blunder into a huge piece of art—say, a smiley face or a basketball. Just as well; I think my parents would have frowned on that. But nowadays, grass art—based on the very same principle I unwittingly discovered—has reached an exceptional level of sophistication, as artists create giant, stunningly detailed photographs on living grass. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Lightsabres

The myth and technology of the Jedi weapon

Like most people, I thoroughly enjoyed the three original Star Wars films, and like most people, I found the prequel installments rather disappointing. The special effects and visual quality were dramatically improved, but the stories left much to be desired, the acting was mediocre, and the writing had none of the intensity or sparkle of the originals. After “Episode I: The Phantom Menace” appeared, I was discussing it with my friend Johanna. We spent a lot of time complaining about Jar Jar Binks, the interminable pod race sequence, and the complete absence of memorable dialogue. But as we talked, I realized that despite my criticism, there was still something about the film that inspired me. So I said, “Even considering all these problems, be honest. When you left the theater, didn’t you want to be a Jedi knight?” Johanna smiled sheepishly and said, “Well, yeah, of course!” Me too.

That’s not to say I’d record my religion as “Jedi” on a census form—Star Wars is, after all, just a story. Still, Jedi knights are very cool, in the way comic-book superheroes are. They have mysterious telepathic and telekinetic powers; they are expert fighters; they nearly always manage to save the day. But the best thing about Jedi knights is that they carry what they consider a simple, low-tech weapon: a lightsabre. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Light Pollution

Urban assault on the night sky

I used to go for a walk every night. It was a pleasant habit—exercise, fresh air, quiet time alone to think. I made a point, whenever possible, of walking in an area away from the city lights, where the sky was dark enough that I could get a good look at the stars. I knew how to pick out some of the constellations, though I could never quite understand how anyone could see a goat or an archer in the patterns of stars. Seeing shapes in clouds is one thing, but mentally connecting the dots to form a complex picture didn’t really work for me. That’s not to say I didn’t see anything in the stars, though. As I looked at a particular star, I would think about the possibility of life in outer space, the chance that a planet circling that star may be home to people like me—or unfathomably different beings. I’d think about how Earth is just another one of those countless planets and the sun just another one of those countless stars. And picking my favorite star of the moment, I’d say to myself, “Someday I’ll find a way to go there.”

Looking at the stars and thinking about them in this way always had a very calming effect on me. I felt as though it gave me a sense of proportion, that it put my own crises and ambitions in perspective. It didn’t make me feel insignificantly small; instead, it made me feel somehow privileged to be able to see and understand what may be out there, and to realize I’m a part of something so big. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Pastis

The noble successor to absinthe

It’s all Peter Mayle’s fault. Before I fell under his nefarious influence, I had very simple tastes. Food was food; a burger and fries eaten on the run was a perfectly satisfactory dining experience. But then I read A Year in Provence and its sequels, books that tell colorful tales about ordinary life in the southern French countryside. To hear Mayle describe life in Provence, every waking hour is concerned with acquiring, preparing, or eating food. His descriptions of wonderfully rich food and drink, enjoyed course after course in meals that stretch for hours, are sensual to the point of being called erotic. You can just taste the foie gras, the truffles, the escargots as you read. For impressionable minds like mine, there was only one possible outcome. I became a French food snob. And along my path to culinary enlightenment, I felt it necessary to sample—indeed, become somewhat expert on—a variety of French beverages. One drink that receives quite prominent treatment in Mayle’s books is pastis, which is as good a place to start as any.

Pastis is a distilled spirit made from a blend of herbs. The flavor is predominantly that of anise, thus putting it in the same general class as sambuca and ouzo. It is commonly consumed as an aperitif—sort of a liquid, alcoholic appetizer—and in France, where it’s most popular, the custom is to dilute it at the table with about five parts of cold water. The ritual of adding the water, which causes the translucent yellowish liquid to turn cloudy, is part of the fun of drinking pastis. But the most interesting thing about pastis is its history. That it should exist at all is a bit of an accident. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Peanut Milk

The magic peanut elixir

Every child who grows up in the United States hears the story of George Washington Carver, a former slave who became a botanist and agriculturalist. Carver is best known for devising over 300 uses for peanuts—from ink to glue to soap, not to mention a great many recipes for peanut-based foods. Although I’ve often wondered why I don’t see peanut paint or peanut insecticide at my local hardware store, I have the utmost respect for Carver’s discoveries and for the versatility of this humble legume.

Peanuts have got to be one of my top ten favorite foods. I love peanuts in or on chocolate, ice cream, Pad Thai, satays, soups, sauces, and just about everywhere else. They’re especially good on airplanes (which otherwise tend to have a rather metallic taste). So when I heard about a peanut-based beverage that also reputedly had fantastic health benefits, I couldn’t wait to try it. The product in question is the suspiciously named Signs and Wonders brand peanut milk, developed right here in San Francisco. Although you can buy it from a number of small stores, the best place to get it is the KK Cafe near the corner of Haight and Divisadero Streets, where it was invented. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Dvorak Keyboard Controversy

Chasing QWERTY

When I was first learning to type, many years ago, I asked the same question everyone else asks: why are the keys arranged so stupidly? Why aren’t they laid out in a more logical order, as in, just to take one random example, alphabetically? The answer I’ve heard countless times is that the first typewriter keyboards were arranged alphabetically, but that caused mechanical problems—once typists became reasonably proficient, the keys jammed frequently because the hammers corresponding to certain frequently used letter sequences were too close together. As a result, so the story goes, the QWERTY layout was designed to prevent jamming by moving those letters farther apart, thus slowing down the typists to a speed the machine could handle. Meanwhile, a more sensible and efficient layout called the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard has been around for a long time, but never became very popular because QWERTY simply had too much momentum in the marketplace.

That story has frequently been used (even by me) as an example of how an inferior, inefficient design came to be the standard—and remained so, long after the original reasons for its success became irrelevant. But the truth is more complicated and surprisingly controversial. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Palais Idéal

The postman’s palace

The topic of weird, elaborate structures built by wealthy eccentrics has come up repeatedly here at Interesting Thing of the Day—think of the Winchester Mystery House, Neuschwanstein Castle, and Hearst Castle, for instance. Today we add to that list a palace constructed in its entirety by an eccentric of modest means: a postman named Ferdinand Cheval.

The story begins in 1879. Cheval, then 43 years old, had been working as a rural mail carrier in the southeast of France for 12 years. Because his daily routine involved walking about 20 miles (32km), mostly in solitude, he did a lot of daydreaming. One day (perhaps while his mind was elsewhere), he tripped over a small limestone rock. He noticed that the rock was oddly and beautifully shaped, so he wrapped it up in his handkerchief, put it in his pocket, and took it home with him. The next day, he went back to the same spot and found lots of other interesting stones. He recalled a striking dream he’d had in 1864, in which he’d built a huge castle of stone. Right then and there, he decided to make his dream a reality: he made it his life’s mission to collect enough stones to construct that castle. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Planning Your Own Funeral

Having the last laugh first

When my mother returned from a vacation to Florida with her sister a number of months ago, I called to ask how it went. “Oh, we had the best time!” she said. “We spent most of the trip planning our funerals. It was hilarious!” Well, that wasn’t quite what I was expecting to hear. On previous vacations my mom has gone on cruises, even tried parasailing, and I thought I had a pretty good idea of what activities she considered fun. Funeral planning was a bit of a surprise. It’s not that she’s ill or expecting to die soon. But, as she put it, “If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.”

I’ve seen some of those late-night commercials trying to sell funeral insurance, with the idea being that you can save your grieving loved ones the considerable expense associated with funerals and burial. But that wasn’t what my mother had in mind at all. (In fact, she made a point of saying that since she’d relieved the family of the burden of funeral planning, the least we could do is pay for it!) Rather, she’d gone to some local funeral parlors and asked them for pre-planning forms she could fill out, detailing her background and family contact information, and specifying her wishes for things like burial versus cremation, type of casket, a minister to preside over the ceremony, and so on. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Cochineal

Insect-based color

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

When I was a kid, there was a time when artificial red food dyes came under intense scrutiny because of their purported health risks. In 1976, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned the dye FD&C Red #2 because scientific studies showed it had carcinogenic effects on female rats. In response to the public concern about red food coloring, food manufacturers discontinued some of their red products, even if they didn’t contain Red #2. I remember this clearly because it meant that certain types of candy (such as M&Ms) no longer included red-colored pieces, and that I avoided any red candies I came across. More recently, another type of red food dye, FD&C #40, has been linked to increased hyperactivity in children, although it remains on the list of FDA-approved color additives.

Because of the controversy surrounding these artificial dyes, some food manufacturers have turned to another source of red coloring. Known as cochineal, or in some forms, carmine, this dye, produced from a type of insect native to South America and Mexico called the cochineal, has a history that goes back hundreds of years. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Tiki

The imaginary Polynesian culture

One day last summer I walked into one of my favorite mom-and-pop variety shops in San Francisco and saw a big display of everything Tiki—a Tiki bar, Tiki glasses, Tiki masks, Tiki statues, Tiki books. My initial reaction was, “Ah, another cheesy American fad is reborn,” followed quickly by, “Cool! I need to own this stuff.” What can I say? I’m a sucker for faux culture, especially exotic faux culture—particularly when it involves interesting drinks. But I soon realized that I had only ever heard the word “Tiki” used as an adjective. I didn’t know what a Tiki actually was. I could identify Tiki-themed merchandise easily enough, but I wasn’t quite clear what culture it was supposed to represent. So I decided to do some research.

My first step, of course, was to watch the film “Pirates of the Caribbean.” Other than being set in the wrong ocean, it was a good way to get those Tiki juices flowing. After all, it does involve islands and rum. But it made me hearken back to the attraction of the same name that I’ve visited at both Walt Disney World and Disneyland. This, in turn, reminded me of yet another notorious Disney attraction which is also populated by those ubiquitous Audio-Animatronic characters—namely, the Enchanted Tiki Room. Ah, now we’re getting somewhere. So my next stop was the closest approximation of the Enchanted Tiki Room I could find in San Francisco: a restaurant called the Tonga Room. And what luck: just in time for happy hour and an all-you-can-eat buffet. At last I was getting somewhere. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Icewine

How a little frost can do wonders for wine

I may not be the most agriculturally sophisticated person in the world, but I always felt pretty confident in my basic belief that frost was a Bad Thing when it came to growing produce. If whatever crop you’re growing hasn’t been harvested by the time temperatures dip below freezing, serious damage can be done, right? Common sense, however, frequently turns out to be wrong. At least for grapes, freezing is eagerly anticipated by vintners in certain parts of the world. It’s a key factor in the production of an expensive variety of dessert wine known as icewine.

Grapes are most comfortably grown in a Mediterranean climate—areas with hot, dry summers and mild, wet winters, such as France, Italy, Spain, Australia, and parts of California. But plenty of excellent wines also come from Germany, Austria, and the southeastern and southwestern corners of Canada, all places where freezing temperatures in winter are quite normal. And these are exactly the regions where icewine is produced. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Paris Plages

Bringing the beach to Paris

August in Paris is traditionally the time when residents head off for their month-long annual vacations. However, the city is by no means empty. For millions of residents and tourists, life goes on as usual, but there’s still that seasonal urge to spread out a towel on the sand and soak up some sun. Paris is nearly 125 miles (200km) from the coast, but every summer since 2002, a full-blown beach has appeared right in the center of town, courtesy of the city government and corporate sponsors.

Paris Plages is the collective name of a series of sites set up around the city for summertime activities; they’re in operation for roughly a month each year from late July to late August. The idea was the brainchild of Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoë, who has taken numerous steps to make the city more accessible to pedestrians and cyclists. The original and best-known Paris Plage is constructed along the right bank of the Seine River, running almost 2 miles (3km) from the Louvre to Pont Sully (the Sully Bridge). What is normally the Georges Pompidou Expressway is closed to traffic (much to the dismay of commuters) and turned into a pedestrian walkway. Along the side of the road farthest from the river the actual beaches are installed—3000 tons of sand trucked in and trucked back out every year. In between sections of faux beach are areas devoted to other activities for both adults and children, such as rock climbing, rollerblading, and even t’ai chi. There are also restrooms, showers, first aid and police stations, and several mist zones where people can stand in a constant fine spray of water to cool off. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Dvorak Keyboard Controversy

Chasing QWERTY

When I was first learning to type, many years ago, I asked the same question everyone else asks: why are the keys arranged so stupidly? Why aren’t they laid out in a more logical order, as in, just to take one random example, alphabetically? The answer I’ve heard countless times is that the first typewriter keyboards were arranged alphabetically, but that caused mechanical problems—once typists became reasonably proficient, the keys jammed frequently because the hammers corresponding to certain frequently used letter sequences were too close together. As a result, so the story goes, the QWERTY layout was designed to prevent jamming by moving those letters farther apart, thus slowing down the typists to a speed the machine could handle. Meanwhile, a more sensible and efficient layout called the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard has been around for a long time, but never became very popular because QWERTY simply had too much momentum in the marketplace.

That story has frequently been used (even by me) as an example of how an inferior, inefficient design came to be the standard—and remained so, long after the original reasons for its success became irrelevant. But the truth is more complicated and surprisingly controversial. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Palais Idéal

The postman’s palace

The topic of weird, elaborate structures built by wealthy eccentrics has come up repeatedly here at Interesting Thing of the Day—think of the Winchester Mystery House, Neuschwanstein Castle, and Hearst Castle, for instance. Today we add to that list a palace constructed in its entirety by an eccentric of modest means: a postman named Ferdinand Cheval.

The story begins in 1879. Cheval, then 43 years old, had been working as a rural mail carrier in the southeast of France for 12 years. Because his daily routine involved walking about 20 miles (32km), mostly in solitude, he did a lot of daydreaming. One day (perhaps while his mind was elsewhere), he tripped over a small limestone rock. He noticed that the rock was oddly and beautifully shaped, so he wrapped it up in his handkerchief, put it in his pocket, and took it home with him. The next day, he went back to the same spot and found lots of other interesting stones. He recalled a striking dream he’d had in 1864, in which he’d built a huge castle of stone. Right then and there, he decided to make his dream a reality: he made it his life’s mission to collect enough stones to construct that castle. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Planning Your Own Funeral

Having the last laugh first

When my mother returned from a vacation to Florida with her sister a number of months ago, I called to ask how it went. “Oh, we had the best time!” she said. “We spent most of the trip planning our funerals. It was hilarious!” Well, that wasn’t quite what I was expecting to hear. On previous vacations my mom has gone on cruises, even tried parasailing, and I thought I had a pretty good idea of what activities she considered fun. Funeral planning was a bit of a surprise. It’s not that she’s ill or expecting to die soon. But, as she put it, “If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.”

I’ve seen some of those late-night commercials trying to sell funeral insurance, with the idea being that you can save your grieving loved ones the considerable expense associated with funerals and burial. But that wasn’t what my mother had in mind at all. (In fact, she made a point of saying that since she’d relieved the family of the burden of funeral planning, the least we could do is pay for it!) Rather, she’d gone to some local funeral parlors and asked them for pre-planning forms she could fill out, detailing her background and family contact information, and specifying her wishes for things like burial versus cremation, type of casket, a minister to preside over the ceremony, and so on. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Cochineal

Insect-based color

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

When I was a kid, there was a time when artificial red food dyes came under intense scrutiny because of their purported health risks. In 1976, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned the dye FD&C Red #2 because scientific studies showed it had carcinogenic effects on female rats. In response to the public concern about red food coloring, food manufacturers discontinued some of their red products, even if they didn’t contain Red #2. I remember this clearly because it meant that certain types of candy (such as M&Ms) no longer included red-colored pieces, and that I avoided any red candies I came across. More recently, another type of red food dye, FD&C #40, has been linked to increased hyperactivity in children, although it remains on the list of FDA-approved color additives.

Because of the controversy surrounding these artificial dyes, some food manufacturers have turned to another source of red coloring. Known as cochineal, or in some forms, carmine, this dye, produced from a type of insect native to South America and Mexico called the cochineal, has a history that goes back hundreds of years. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Paris Plages

Bringing the beach to Paris

August in Paris is traditionally the time when residents head off for their month-long annual vacations. However, the city is by no means empty. For millions of residents and tourists, life goes on as usual, but there’s still that seasonal urge to spread out a towel on the sand and soak up some sun. Paris is nearly 125 miles (200km) from the coast, but every summer since 2002, a full-blown beach has appeared right in the center of town, courtesy of the city government and corporate sponsors.

Paris Plages is the collective name of a series of sites set up around the city for summertime activities; they’re in operation for roughly a month each year from late July to late August. The idea was the brainchild of Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoë, who has taken numerous steps to make the city more accessible to pedestrians and cyclists. The original and best-known Paris Plage is constructed along the right bank of the Seine River, running almost 2 miles (3km) from the Louvre to Pont Sully (the Sully Bridge). What is normally the Georges Pompidou Expressway is closed to traffic (much to the dismay of commuters) and turned into a pedestrian walkway. Along the side of the road farthest from the river the actual beaches are installed—3000 tons of sand trucked in and trucked back out every year. In between sections of faux beach are areas devoted to other activities for both adults and children, such as rock climbing, rollerblading, and even t’ai chi. There are also restrooms, showers, first aid and police stations, and several mist zones where people can stand in a constant fine spray of water to cool off. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Eye-to-Eye Video

Solving the eye contact problem

Perched atop my computer is a shiny, high-tech video camera. Through the miracles of modern technology, I can have live video chats with friends or business associates on the other side of the country or the other side of the world, without even paying long-distance phone charges. Although I could opt for an audio-only conversation or even the text-only format of email or instant messaging, there’s something about seeing another person’s face that makes communication much richer and more satisfying. Using similar technology, I’ve participated in countless videoconferences involving multiple people in each of two or more locations, using cameras mounted on large video monitors and special microphones so that we can all see and hear each other. This is all good. But there’s one thing about the current state of the art in video communication that still bothers me greatly: the inability to make eye contact with the person or people on the other end. This was never a problem on Star Trek, which was of course the source of all my technological expectations.

Look at Me When You Say That
If you have ever tried video chats or videoconferencing yourself, you undoubtedly know what I mean. If not, let me describe what’s going on. The camera that’s pointing at your face is positioned above, below, or to the side of your display. This means the angle at which you’re viewing the screen is different from the angle at which the camera (and therefore the person on the other end) sees you—an effect known as parallax. Only if you were looking directly into the camera would the viewer have the impression you’re looking into his or her eyes. As a result, while you see your friend’s image on the screen, your friend appears to be looking down (or in some direction other than right at you), and you appear the same way on your friend’s screen. You could, of course, position the camera directly in front of your own screen, but then, the camera itself would block your view of the person on the other end. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

White LEDs

How to make a blue light special

Thirty years ago, the most interesting thing I knew of was the digital watch. Never mind that digital watches were harder to read than analog watches, that they went through a set of batteries every few weeks, that they cost a small fortune. These things were not important. What was important was cutting-edge style. You could now wear a computerized device on your wrist that, at the press of a button, would display the time in glowing red LED numerals! How cool was that? When my dad got his first digital watch—a huge, clunky thing—I was deeply envious that he had the best toy in the house.

Just a few years later, though, digital watches had moved into the mainstream. I distinctly remember, as a nine-year-old in 1976, saving my allowance to buy my very own $20 digital watch. I was the first kid in my school to have one, the envy of all my friends. (Yes, my geek roots go way back.) It would be a few years yet before liquid-crystal displays (LCDs) became common; in the meantime, I was thrilled to have a status symbol courtesy of LEDs. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

White LEDs

How to make a blue light special

Thirty years ago, the most interesting thing I knew of was the digital watch. Never mind that digital watches were harder to read than analog watches, that they went through a set of batteries every few weeks, that they cost a small fortune. These things were not important. What was important was cutting-edge style. You could now wear a computerized device on your wrist that, at the press of a button, would display the time in glowing red LED numerals! How cool was that? When my dad got his first digital watch—a huge, clunky thing—I was deeply envious that he had the best toy in the house.

Just a few years later, though, digital watches had moved into the mainstream. I distinctly remember, as a nine-year-old in 1976, saving my allowance to buy my very own $20 digital watch. I was the first kid in my school to have one, the envy of all my friends. (Yes, my geek roots go way back.) It would be a few years yet before liquid-crystal displays (LCDs) became common; in the meantime, I was thrilled to have a status symbol courtesy of LEDs. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Grass Photographs

Photosynthetic art

When I was about 12 (give or take a couple of years), I had what I thought was a fantastic idea. I was going to build myself a volcano. I’m not talking about a little model made out of clay with vinegar and baking soda for the special effects. I wanted to construct a dirt cone in the backyard that was hollow inside and large enough to use as a clubhouse. I was a bit sketchy on the actual structural details, but I figured I’d start by digging a nice big pit, then add some sort of frame and cover it over with the dirt I’d removed previously. So I got an old piece of garden hose and formed it into a circle about 15 feet (5m) in diameter on the lawn to mark the perimeter of the volcano. The actual digging turned out to be a lot harder than I’d imagined—so hard, in fact, that after shoveling about two scoops of dirt I decided I’d better take a break. Weeks later, when I still hadn’t resumed my project, my mother told me to get that hose out of the middle of the yard, and while I was at it, mow the lawn. Reluctantly, I put the hose away, only to find it had left an unsightly yellow ring on the grass. It looked as though a flying saucer had landed, and the ring didn’t fade until the following spring.

I was embarrassed at both my inability to build my volcano and the condition of our lawn. It never occurred to me that with a bit more effort, I could have turned my blunder into a huge piece of art—say, a smiley face or a basketball. Just as well; I think my parents would have frowned on that. But nowadays, grass art—based on the very same principle I unwittingly discovered—has reached an exceptional level of sophistication, as artists create giant, stunningly detailed photographs on living grass. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Lightsabres

The myth and technology of the Jedi weapon

Like most people, I thoroughly enjoyed the three original Star Wars films, and like most people, I found the prequel installments rather disappointing. The special effects and visual quality were dramatically improved, but the stories left much to be desired, the acting was mediocre, and the writing had none of the intensity or sparkle of the originals. After “Episode I: The Phantom Menace” appeared, I was discussing it with my friend Johanna. We spent a lot of time complaining about Jar Jar Binks, the interminable pod race sequence, and the complete absence of memorable dialogue. But as we talked, I realized that despite my criticism, there was still something about the film that inspired me. So I said, “Even considering all these problems, be honest. When you left the theater, didn’t you want to be a Jedi knight?” Johanna smiled sheepishly and said, “Well, yeah, of course!” Me too.

That’s not to say I’d record my religion as “Jedi” on a census form—Star Wars is, after all, just a story. Still, Jedi knights are very cool, in the way comic-book superheroes are. They have mysterious telepathic and telekinetic powers; they are expert fighters; they nearly always manage to save the day. But the best thing about Jedi knights is that they carry what they consider a simple, low-tech weapon: a lightsabre. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Light Pollution

Urban assault on the night sky

I used to go for a walk every night. It was a pleasant habit—exercise, fresh air, quiet time alone to think. I made a point, whenever possible, of walking in an area away from the city lights, where the sky was dark enough that I could get a good look at the stars. I knew how to pick out some of the constellations, though I could never quite understand how anyone could see a goat or an archer in the patterns of stars. Seeing shapes in clouds is one thing, but mentally connecting the dots to form a complex picture didn’t really work for me. That’s not to say I didn’t see anything in the stars, though. As I looked at a particular star, I would think about the possibility of life in outer space, the chance that a planet circling that star may be home to people like me—or unfathomably different beings. I’d think about how Earth is just another one of those countless planets and the sun just another one of those countless stars. And picking my favorite star of the moment, I’d say to myself, “Someday I’ll find a way to go there.”

Looking at the stars and thinking about them in this way always had a very calming effect on me. I felt as though it gave me a sense of proportion, that it put my own crises and ambitions in perspective. It didn’t make me feel insignificantly small; instead, it made me feel somehow privileged to be able to see and understand what may be out there, and to realize I’m a part of something so big. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Pastis

The noble successor to absinthe

It’s all Peter Mayle’s fault. Before I fell under his nefarious influence, I had very simple tastes. Food was food; a burger and fries eaten on the run was a perfectly satisfactory dining experience. But then I read A Year in Provence and its sequels, books that tell colorful tales about ordinary life in the southern French countryside. To hear Mayle describe life in Provence, every waking hour is concerned with acquiring, preparing, or eating food. His descriptions of wonderfully rich food and drink, enjoyed course after course in meals that stretch for hours, are sensual to the point of being called erotic. You can just taste the foie gras, the truffles, the escargots as you read. For impressionable minds like mine, there was only one possible outcome. I became a French food snob. And along my path to culinary enlightenment, I felt it necessary to sample—indeed, become somewhat expert on—a variety of French beverages. One drink that receives quite prominent treatment in Mayle’s books is pastis, which is as good a place to start as any.

Pastis is a distilled spirit made from a blend of herbs. The flavor is predominantly that of anise, thus putting it in the same general class as sambuca and ouzo. It is commonly consumed as an aperitif—sort of a liquid, alcoholic appetizer—and in France, where it’s most popular, the custom is to dilute it at the table with about five parts of cold water. The ritual of adding the water, which causes the translucent yellowish liquid to turn cloudy, is part of the fun of drinking pastis. But the most interesting thing about pastis is its history. That it should exist at all is a bit of an accident. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Peanut Milk

The magic peanut elixir

Every child who grows up in the United States hears the story of George Washington Carver, a former slave who became a botanist and agriculturalist. Carver is best known for devising over 300 uses for peanuts—from ink to glue to soap, not to mention a great many recipes for peanut-based foods. Although I’ve often wondered why I don’t see peanut paint or peanut insecticide at my local hardware store, I have the utmost respect for Carver’s discoveries and for the versatility of this humble legume.

Peanuts have got to be one of my top ten favorite foods. I love peanuts in or on chocolate, ice cream, Pad Thai, satays, soups, sauces, and just about everywhere else. They’re especially good on airplanes (which otherwise tend to have a rather metallic taste). So when I heard about a peanut-based beverage that also reputedly had fantastic health benefits, I couldn’t wait to try it. The product in question is the suspiciously named Signs and Wonders brand peanut milk, developed right here in San Francisco. Although you can buy it from a number of small stores, the best place to get it is the KK Cafe near the corner of Haight and Divisadero Streets, where it was invented. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Tiki

The imaginary Polynesian culture

One day last summer I walked into one of my favorite mom-and-pop variety shops in San Francisco and saw a big display of everything Tiki—a Tiki bar, Tiki glasses, Tiki masks, Tiki statues, Tiki books. My initial reaction was, “Ah, another cheesy American fad is reborn,” followed quickly by, “Cool! I need to own this stuff.” What can I say? I’m a sucker for faux culture, especially exotic faux culture—particularly when it involves interesting drinks. But I soon realized that I had only ever heard the word “Tiki” used as an adjective. I didn’t know what a Tiki actually was. I could identify Tiki-themed merchandise easily enough, but I wasn’t quite clear what culture it was supposed to represent. So I decided to do some research.

My first step, of course, was to watch the film “Pirates of the Caribbean.” Other than being set in the wrong ocean, it was a good way to get those Tiki juices flowing. After all, it does involve islands and rum. But it made me hearken back to the attraction of the same name that I’ve visited at both Walt Disney World and Disneyland. This, in turn, reminded me of yet another notorious Disney attraction which is also populated by those ubiquitous Audio-Animatronic characters—namely, the Enchanted Tiki Room. Ah, now we’re getting somewhere. So my next stop was the closest approximation of the Enchanted Tiki Room I could find in San Francisco: a restaurant called the Tonga Room. And what luck: just in time for happy hour and an all-you-can-eat buffet. At last I was getting somewhere. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Icewine

How a little frost can do wonders for wine

I may not be the most agriculturally sophisticated person in the world, but I always felt pretty confident in my basic belief that frost was a Bad Thing when it came to growing produce. If whatever crop you’re growing hasn’t been harvested by the time temperatures dip below freezing, serious damage can be done, right? Common sense, however, frequently turns out to be wrong. At least for grapes, freezing is eagerly anticipated by vintners in certain parts of the world. It’s a key factor in the production of an expensive variety of dessert wine known as icewine.

Grapes are most comfortably grown in a Mediterranean climate—areas with hot, dry summers and mild, wet winters, such as France, Italy, Spain, Australia, and parts of California. But plenty of excellent wines also come from Germany, Austria, and the southeastern and southwestern corners of Canada, all places where freezing temperatures in winter are quite normal. And these are exactly the regions where icewine is produced. [Article Continues…]

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