From the archives…

Paris Catacombs

Man-made calcium deposits

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

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

•••••

From the archives…

Oil from Garbage

Modern-day alchemy

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

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

•••••

From the archives…

San Francisco's Terra Infirma

Ship to shore

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

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

•••••

From the archives…

The Woodwose

Bigfoot’s European cousin

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

Like the Loch Ness Monster or the Abominable Snowman, I usually think of Bigfoot (or Sasquatch as he’s sometimes known) as a distinctly 20th century phenomenon. However, while it’s true that interest in these legendary creatures was stoked by images captured through the modern means of photography and film, the stories surrounding them actually go back centuries. From the lakes of Scotland, to the heights of the Himalayas, to the Pacific Northwest of America, locals have long attested to the presence of these elusive beings.

Although little-known today, a mythical creature with striking similarities to Bigfoot was believed to exist an even longer time ago in medieval Europe. Called a woodwose, or in Anglo-Saxon wuduwasa, this wild man of the forest was a familiar figure in the literature and visual arts of the Middle Ages. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Truffles

Fungus of the gods

Last year on a trip to Paris, I had one of the most gastronomically memorable days of my life. On a single day, I had the best baguette, the best pain au chocolat, the best cherries, and the best melon I’d ever eaten. Without in any way meaning to slight the fine work of the bakers and produce sellers who contributed to the day’s find, something about the large number of factors that had to randomly converge to produce that experience struck me as cosmically significant. I don’t think it could have been planned or manipulated; it just had to happen, and I had to be in the right place at the right time, too.

The very same thing could be said of the truffle, one of the world’s most expensive foods. I didn’t eat any truffles that day in Paris—they were long out of season. But I couldn’t help thinking that France has a strange power to alter the rules of randomness in such a way as to make exceptionally rare and tasty foods more likely to occur. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Tulipomania

The quest for the perfect tulip

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

In his 1850 novel The Black Tulip, French author Alexandre Dumas (père) describes a competition, initiated by the Dutch city of Haarlem in the 1670s, in which 100,000 florins (150 florins being the average yearly income at the time) would be given to the first person who could grow a black tulip. Although Dumas’s story is fictional, it is based on a very real phenomenon that took place in the Netherlands in the early 17th century.

Between 1634 and 1637, the Netherlands (then called the United Provinces) saw the rise and fall of many fortunes due to an intense period of tulip trading. Now described as tulipomania, it involved the wild overvaluation of certain types of tulip, leading to the eventual crash of the inflated market. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Polyphasic Sleep

Hacking your internal clock

I’ve been thinking a lot about sleep lately. It all started when I saw the movie Into Great Silence, which depicted the lives of Carthusian monks who get by on about six hours of sleep per night, divided into two segments (see The Grande Chartruese). More recently I’ve been testing software called pzizz that’s supposed to facilitate power napping. And the publicist for a sleep researcher I mentioned in my article about sleep debt offered to send me a book on improving the quality of one’s sleep. So sleep has been very much on my mind, especially when I’m downing my third cup of coffee for the day, frantically trying to meet some deadline or other and wishing I could be dreaming instead. In fact, now that I look at how many articles I’ve written that have something to do with sleep, I’m frankly shocked. Clearly sleep is one of my favorite hobbies.

On the other hand, I always have projects stacked up months deep and never seem to have enough time to finish everything on my day’s schedule. So I was intrigued to read about a concept called polyphasic sleep, in which you sleep for several short periods of time each day, rather than one long period as you would in ordinary, or monophasic, sleep. (By the way, if you sleep for a long stretch at night and then take an afternoon nap, you’re practicing a form of biphasic sleep—a schedule I personally enjoy.) Proponents of polyphasic sleep claim that it reduces your overall need for sleep to as little as two hours per day, while keeping you just as alert and healthy as you’d otherwise be. Critics say it’s a dangerous practice that can shorten your lifespan and lead to physical, psychological, and social problems. But lots of people have tried it, and I’ve found it intriguing to read about their experiences. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Bossaball

The game with bounce

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

Team sports don’t hold much appeal for me, with the notable exception of volleyball. I don’t know exactly why that is, but it may have something to do with the lack of violence in the way the game is played. There’s no tackling, tripping, checking, or jostling between players on opposing teams, just the graceful lobbing or purposeful spiking of the ball over the net. Other sports, such as tennis and badminton, have the same appeal, but I like the aspect of team cooperation that is so essential to a good volley.

I once played on a volleyball team and enjoyed it greatly; that is, except for the bruises on my forearms caused by excessive bumping, the aches in my jammed fingers from setting the ball, and the scrapes on my knees from my unsuccessful attempts to keep the ball off the floor. I’ve always thought I’d like to try beach volleyball for that reason, since sand seems much more forgiving than concrete, and the mood is often more casual than serious. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Grande Chartreuse

Keeping the faith quietly

Last Sunday afternoon Morgen and I went to a local theater to see the film Into Great Silence. We expected to be pretty much the only ones there—how many people could really want to sit through a three-hour-long documentary about a group of monks in the French Alps who live in almost complete silence? Especially on a Sunday afternoon, a traditional nap time if ever there was one! But the line stretched halfway down the block, and we were lucky to get seated before the film began. The documentary contained no music except for a few scenes in which the monks were chanting, no voiceover, very limited dialog, and in fact hardly any sounds at all. I’ll admit, in fact, that we both dozed off once or twice (it pays to go with someone who can nudge you when your eyelids droop). But we also left the theater agreeing that we’d just seen one of the coolest things ever: an intimate glimpse into the lives of the Carthusian monks who live at the Grande Chartreuse monastery near Grenoble, France.

That we should be drawn to the story of monks living in silence probably comes as little surprise; the themes of quiet and solitude have come up repeatedly here at Interesting Thing of the Day. But we were frankly shocked to discover that life at the Grande Chartreuse, as depicted in the film, seemed completely at odds with our image of what has been called one of the most ascetic monastic orders in the world. The monks’ cells looked quite comfortable and reasonably spacious. The monastery’s setting in the Alps was simply breathtaking. Even the food looked amazing—no shortage of fresh produce and delicious-looking bread. We also saw a few moments of monks at play and got a small taste of their sense of humor. They seemed, to me, quite comfortable, well-adjusted, and serene—yet intensely focused on their work. I turned, as usual, to the Web to get more details about the monastery and the order of which it is a part. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Influence of Color on Taste Perception

Palette vs. palate

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

It’s not a secret that the way food looks has an effect on our willingness to eat it. That’s why top chefs spend so much time perfecting the presentation of their plates, and food companies spend so much money on marketing and packaging. Of course, taste is the most important sense when it comes to enjoying food, but just how important is sight?

Try this thought experiment: a bowl of yellow-colored gelatin is placed before you. How would you expect it to taste, sweet or sour? It could be that you think it will taste sour, because of your prior experience with other yellow foods that are sour, such as lemons and grapefruits. Or you could think it will taste sweet, based on your memory of other sweet foods that are yellow (like bananas or pineapple). [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

826 National

Pirates, spies, superheroes, and young authors

San Francisco has no shortage of trendy restaurants and interesting shops. If you want to get a good taste of what the city has to offer, and especially if you don’t want to spend lots of money doing it, head to the historic Mission District and stroll up and down Valencia Street. Amidst the art galleries, taquerias, and retro furniture stores you’ll find all sorts of quirky little gems with that quintessential San Francisco character. Perhaps the best example is a store named after its location: 826 Valencia. Its unassuming exterior gives you little clue as to what’s inside, and even after you start looking around, it may take you a few minutes to figure out that you are standing in a pirate supply store. It’s true: if you need to get an eye patch, a Jolly Roger flag, a spyglass, or even a bucket of lard for—well, whatever pirates use lard for—you’re in the right place.

At first, everything in the store seems to be completely serious, as though they expect real pirates to sail in on a daily basis for provisions. A closer inspection reveals that they’re having a good time at their own expense. Take, for example, the signs scattered around the store, such as “Have You Got Scurvy?” (with a list of symptoms), “Goals for the Voyage” (Plunder. Meet new people. Learn valuable new skills.), and even a helpful list of suggested uses for that lard (including “mast greasing” and “fingernail softening”). There’s also a little curtained-off area with a handful of old movie-theater seats facing a large aquarium; you can sit there for as long as you like and watch the residents, including a puffer fish named Otka. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Nyepi

Bali’s day of silence

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Tongue-Eating Louse

A revolting-but-true fish story

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Chinooks

Snow-eating winds of the Rockies

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

For those who live in wintry climates, it can sometimes seem like spring will never arrive. Around the beginning of March in the upper Northern Hemisphere there is a palpable restlessness, an eagerness to shed winter clothing and begin planting spring gardens. At the northern latitude in which I grew up, winter would often linger into April, if not longer, and the sight of snow, which once seemed so novel in the fall, became unbearable.

Amongst these wintry places, however, there are regions where spring can arrive suddenly in the middle of January, but retreat just as suddenly. One such region, an area encompassing the southern half of the Canadian province of Alberta, along with parts of Montana and the Dakotas, is subject to a unique meteorological process that can cause this type of extreme variation in temperature. Known as the Chinook wind, or simply chinooks, this phenomenon is responsible for record-breaking fluctuations of temperature and humidity, as well as bringing relief to a winter-weary population. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Non-Newtonian Fluids

When liquids behave like solids

Like many people, I’ve tried very hard to forget my days in junior high school. That was an unpleasant time in my life for all the usual reasons, and thankfully most of it is now a dim blur. But a few pleasant moments do stand out in my memory. One of those was a report I did for my ninth-grade science class. For reasons I no longer recall, the topic I chose was Pascal’s Law, and I must have prepared well for that 10-minute presentation, because I could probably stand up and give pretty much the same talk today, even though I never went on to study any more about it.

Pascal’s Law describes the behavior of fluids in a closed system, and says, to oversimplify somewhat, that the pressure the fluids exert is always the same throughout the system. This is the principle that enables hydraulic presses to work—a small amount of force applied to a piston pushing down on fluid can exert much more force on a larger connected piston, making it sort of like a liquid lever. The same effect has applications in everything from scuba diving to ventilation systems and dam construction. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Paris Catacombs

Man-made calcium deposits

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

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

•••••

From the archives…

Oil from Garbage

Modern-day alchemy

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

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

•••••

From the archives…

San Francisco's Terra Infirma

Ship to shore

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

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

•••••

From the archives…

The Woodwose

Bigfoot’s European cousin

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

Like the Loch Ness Monster or the Abominable Snowman, I usually think of Bigfoot (or Sasquatch as he’s sometimes known) as a distinctly 20th century phenomenon. However, while it’s true that interest in these legendary creatures was stoked by images captured through the modern means of photography and film, the stories surrounding them actually go back centuries. From the lakes of Scotland, to the heights of the Himalayas, to the Pacific Northwest of America, locals have long attested to the presence of these elusive beings.

Although little-known today, a mythical creature with striking similarities to Bigfoot was believed to exist an even longer time ago in medieval Europe. Called a woodwose, or in Anglo-Saxon wuduwasa, this wild man of the forest was a familiar figure in the literature and visual arts of the Middle Ages. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Woodwose

Bigfoot’s European cousin

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

Like the Loch Ness Monster or the Abominable Snowman, I usually think of Bigfoot (or Sasquatch as he’s sometimes known) as a distinctly 20th century phenomenon. However, while it’s true that interest in these legendary creatures was stoked by images captured through the modern means of photography and film, the stories surrounding them actually go back centuries. From the lakes of Scotland, to the heights of the Himalayas, to the Pacific Northwest of America, locals have long attested to the presence of these elusive beings.

Although little-known today, a mythical creature with striking similarities to Bigfoot was believed to exist an even longer time ago in medieval Europe. Called a woodwose, or in Anglo-Saxon wuduwasa, this wild man of the forest was a familiar figure in the literature and visual arts of the Middle Ages. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Truffles

Fungus of the gods

Last year on a trip to Paris, I had one of the most gastronomically memorable days of my life. On a single day, I had the best baguette, the best pain au chocolat, the best cherries, and the best melon I’d ever eaten. Without in any way meaning to slight the fine work of the bakers and produce sellers who contributed to the day’s find, something about the large number of factors that had to randomly converge to produce that experience struck me as cosmically significant. I don’t think it could have been planned or manipulated; it just had to happen, and I had to be in the right place at the right time, too.

The very same thing could be said of the truffle, one of the world’s most expensive foods. I didn’t eat any truffles that day in Paris—they were long out of season. But I couldn’t help thinking that France has a strange power to alter the rules of randomness in such a way as to make exceptionally rare and tasty foods more likely to occur. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Tulipomania

The quest for the perfect tulip

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

In his 1850 novel The Black Tulip, French author Alexandre Dumas (père) describes a competition, initiated by the Dutch city of Haarlem in the 1670s, in which 100,000 florins (150 florins being the average yearly income at the time) would be given to the first person who could grow a black tulip. Although Dumas’s story is fictional, it is based on a very real phenomenon that took place in the Netherlands in the early 17th century.

Between 1634 and 1637, the Netherlands (then called the United Provinces) saw the rise and fall of many fortunes due to an intense period of tulip trading. Now described as tulipomania, it involved the wild overvaluation of certain types of tulip, leading to the eventual crash of the inflated market. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Polyphasic Sleep

Hacking your internal clock

I’ve been thinking a lot about sleep lately. It all started when I saw the movie Into Great Silence, which depicted the lives of Carthusian monks who get by on about six hours of sleep per night, divided into two segments (see The Grande Chartruese). More recently I’ve been testing software called pzizz that’s supposed to facilitate power napping. And the publicist for a sleep researcher I mentioned in my article about sleep debt offered to send me a book on improving the quality of one’s sleep. So sleep has been very much on my mind, especially when I’m downing my third cup of coffee for the day, frantically trying to meet some deadline or other and wishing I could be dreaming instead. In fact, now that I look at how many articles I’ve written that have something to do with sleep, I’m frankly shocked. Clearly sleep is one of my favorite hobbies.

On the other hand, I always have projects stacked up months deep and never seem to have enough time to finish everything on my day’s schedule. So I was intrigued to read about a concept called polyphasic sleep, in which you sleep for several short periods of time each day, rather than one long period as you would in ordinary, or monophasic, sleep. (By the way, if you sleep for a long stretch at night and then take an afternoon nap, you’re practicing a form of biphasic sleep—a schedule I personally enjoy.) Proponents of polyphasic sleep claim that it reduces your overall need for sleep to as little as two hours per day, while keeping you just as alert and healthy as you’d otherwise be. Critics say it’s a dangerous practice that can shorten your lifespan and lead to physical, psychological, and social problems. But lots of people have tried it, and I’ve found it intriguing to read about their experiences. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Bossaball

The game with bounce

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

Team sports don’t hold much appeal for me, with the notable exception of volleyball. I don’t know exactly why that is, but it may have something to do with the lack of violence in the way the game is played. There’s no tackling, tripping, checking, or jostling between players on opposing teams, just the graceful lobbing or purposeful spiking of the ball over the net. Other sports, such as tennis and badminton, have the same appeal, but I like the aspect of team cooperation that is so essential to a good volley.

I once played on a volleyball team and enjoyed it greatly; that is, except for the bruises on my forearms caused by excessive bumping, the aches in my jammed fingers from setting the ball, and the scrapes on my knees from my unsuccessful attempts to keep the ball off the floor. I’ve always thought I’d like to try beach volleyball for that reason, since sand seems much more forgiving than concrete, and the mood is often more casual than serious. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Grande Chartreuse

Keeping the faith quietly

Last Sunday afternoon Morgen and I went to a local theater to see the film Into Great Silence. We expected to be pretty much the only ones there—how many people could really want to sit through a three-hour-long documentary about a group of monks in the French Alps who live in almost complete silence? Especially on a Sunday afternoon, a traditional nap time if ever there was one! But the line stretched halfway down the block, and we were lucky to get seated before the film began. The documentary contained no music except for a few scenes in which the monks were chanting, no voiceover, very limited dialog, and in fact hardly any sounds at all. I’ll admit, in fact, that we both dozed off once or twice (it pays to go with someone who can nudge you when your eyelids droop). But we also left the theater agreeing that we’d just seen one of the coolest things ever: an intimate glimpse into the lives of the Carthusian monks who live at the Grande Chartreuse monastery near Grenoble, France.

That we should be drawn to the story of monks living in silence probably comes as little surprise; the themes of quiet and solitude have come up repeatedly here at Interesting Thing of the Day. But we were frankly shocked to discover that life at the Grande Chartreuse, as depicted in the film, seemed completely at odds with our image of what has been called one of the most ascetic monastic orders in the world. The monks’ cells looked quite comfortable and reasonably spacious. The monastery’s setting in the Alps was simply breathtaking. Even the food looked amazing—no shortage of fresh produce and delicious-looking bread. We also saw a few moments of monks at play and got a small taste of their sense of humor. They seemed, to me, quite comfortable, well-adjusted, and serene—yet intensely focused on their work. I turned, as usual, to the Web to get more details about the monastery and the order of which it is a part. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Influence of Color on Taste Perception

Palette vs. palate

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

It’s not a secret that the way food looks has an effect on our willingness to eat it. That’s why top chefs spend so much time perfecting the presentation of their plates, and food companies spend so much money on marketing and packaging. Of course, taste is the most important sense when it comes to enjoying food, but just how important is sight?

Try this thought experiment: a bowl of yellow-colored gelatin is placed before you. How would you expect it to taste, sweet or sour? It could be that you think it will taste sour, because of your prior experience with other yellow foods that are sour, such as lemons and grapefruits. Or you could think it will taste sweet, based on your memory of other sweet foods that are yellow (like bananas or pineapple). [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

826 National

Pirates, spies, superheroes, and young authors

San Francisco has no shortage of trendy restaurants and interesting shops. If you want to get a good taste of what the city has to offer, and especially if you don’t want to spend lots of money doing it, head to the historic Mission District and stroll up and down Valencia Street. Amidst the art galleries, taquerias, and retro furniture stores you’ll find all sorts of quirky little gems with that quintessential San Francisco character. Perhaps the best example is a store named after its location: 826 Valencia. Its unassuming exterior gives you little clue as to what’s inside, and even after you start looking around, it may take you a few minutes to figure out that you are standing in a pirate supply store. It’s true: if you need to get an eye patch, a Jolly Roger flag, a spyglass, or even a bucket of lard for—well, whatever pirates use lard for—you’re in the right place.

At first, everything in the store seems to be completely serious, as though they expect real pirates to sail in on a daily basis for provisions. A closer inspection reveals that they’re having a good time at their own expense. Take, for example, the signs scattered around the store, such as “Have You Got Scurvy?” (with a list of symptoms), “Goals for the Voyage” (Plunder. Meet new people. Learn valuable new skills.), and even a helpful list of suggested uses for that lard (including “mast greasing” and “fingernail softening”). There’s also a little curtained-off area with a handful of old movie-theater seats facing a large aquarium; you can sit there for as long as you like and watch the residents, including a puffer fish named Otka. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Nyepi

Bali’s day of silence

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Tongue-Eating Louse

A revolting-but-true fish story

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Chinooks

Snow-eating winds of the Rockies

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

For those who live in wintry climates, it can sometimes seem like spring will never arrive. Around the beginning of March in the upper Northern Hemisphere there is a palpable restlessness, an eagerness to shed winter clothing and begin planting spring gardens. At the northern latitude in which I grew up, winter would often linger into April, if not longer, and the sight of snow, which once seemed so novel in the fall, became unbearable.

Amongst these wintry places, however, there are regions where spring can arrive suddenly in the middle of January, but retreat just as suddenly. One such region, an area encompassing the southern half of the Canadian province of Alberta, along with parts of Montana and the Dakotas, is subject to a unique meteorological process that can cause this type of extreme variation in temperature. Known as the Chinook wind, or simply chinooks, this phenomenon is responsible for record-breaking fluctuations of temperature and humidity, as well as bringing relief to a winter-weary population. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Non-Newtonian Fluids

When liquids behave like solids

Like many people, I’ve tried very hard to forget my days in junior high school. That was an unpleasant time in my life for all the usual reasons, and thankfully most of it is now a dim blur. But a few pleasant moments do stand out in my memory. One of those was a report I did for my ninth-grade science class. For reasons I no longer recall, the topic I chose was Pascal’s Law, and I must have prepared well for that 10-minute presentation, because I could probably stand up and give pretty much the same talk today, even though I never went on to study any more about it.

Pascal’s Law describes the behavior of fluids in a closed system, and says, to oversimplify somewhat, that the pressure the fluids exert is always the same throughout the system. This is the principle that enables hydraulic presses to work—a small amount of force applied to a piston pushing down on fluid can exert much more force on a larger connected piston, making it sort of like a liquid lever. The same effect has applications in everything from scuba diving to ventilation systems and dam construction. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Paris Catacombs

Man-made calcium deposits

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

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

•••••

From the archives…

Oil from Garbage

Modern-day alchemy

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

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

•••••

From the archives…

San Francisco's Terra Infirma

Ship to shore

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

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

•••••

From the archives…

The Woodwose

Bigfoot’s European cousin

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

Like the Loch Ness Monster or the Abominable Snowman, I usually think of Bigfoot (or Sasquatch as he’s sometimes known) as a distinctly 20th century phenomenon. However, while it’s true that interest in these legendary creatures was stoked by images captured through the modern means of photography and film, the stories surrounding them actually go back centuries. From the lakes of Scotland, to the heights of the Himalayas, to the Pacific Northwest of America, locals have long attested to the presence of these elusive beings.

Although little-known today, a mythical creature with striking similarities to Bigfoot was believed to exist an even longer time ago in medieval Europe. Called a woodwose, or in Anglo-Saxon wuduwasa, this wild man of the forest was a familiar figure in the literature and visual arts of the Middle Ages. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Truffles

Fungus of the gods

Last year on a trip to Paris, I had one of the most gastronomically memorable days of my life. On a single day, I had the best baguette, the best pain au chocolat, the best cherries, and the best melon I’d ever eaten. Without in any way meaning to slight the fine work of the bakers and produce sellers who contributed to the day’s find, something about the large number of factors that had to randomly converge to produce that experience struck me as cosmically significant. I don’t think it could have been planned or manipulated; it just had to happen, and I had to be in the right place at the right time, too.

The very same thing could be said of the truffle, one of the world’s most expensive foods. I didn’t eat any truffles that day in Paris—they were long out of season. But I couldn’t help thinking that France has a strange power to alter the rules of randomness in such a way as to make exceptionally rare and tasty foods more likely to occur. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Tulipomania

The quest for the perfect tulip

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

In his 1850 novel The Black Tulip, French author Alexandre Dumas (père) describes a competition, initiated by the Dutch city of Haarlem in the 1670s, in which 100,000 florins (150 florins being the average yearly income at the time) would be given to the first person who could grow a black tulip. Although Dumas’s story is fictional, it is based on a very real phenomenon that took place in the Netherlands in the early 17th century.

Between 1634 and 1637, the Netherlands (then called the United Provinces) saw the rise and fall of many fortunes due to an intense period of tulip trading. Now described as tulipomania, it involved the wild overvaluation of certain types of tulip, leading to the eventual crash of the inflated market. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Polyphasic Sleep

Hacking your internal clock

I’ve been thinking a lot about sleep lately. It all started when I saw the movie Into Great Silence, which depicted the lives of Carthusian monks who get by on about six hours of sleep per night, divided into two segments (see The Grande Chartruese). More recently I’ve been testing software called pzizz that’s supposed to facilitate power napping. And the publicist for a sleep researcher I mentioned in my article about sleep debt offered to send me a book on improving the quality of one’s sleep. So sleep has been very much on my mind, especially when I’m downing my third cup of coffee for the day, frantically trying to meet some deadline or other and wishing I could be dreaming instead. In fact, now that I look at how many articles I’ve written that have something to do with sleep, I’m frankly shocked. Clearly sleep is one of my favorite hobbies.

On the other hand, I always have projects stacked up months deep and never seem to have enough time to finish everything on my day’s schedule. So I was intrigued to read about a concept called polyphasic sleep, in which you sleep for several short periods of time each day, rather than one long period as you would in ordinary, or monophasic, sleep. (By the way, if you sleep for a long stretch at night and then take an afternoon nap, you’re practicing a form of biphasic sleep—a schedule I personally enjoy.) Proponents of polyphasic sleep claim that it reduces your overall need for sleep to as little as two hours per day, while keeping you just as alert and healthy as you’d otherwise be. Critics say it’s a dangerous practice that can shorten your lifespan and lead to physical, psychological, and social problems. But lots of people have tried it, and I’ve found it intriguing to read about their experiences. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Bossaball

The game with bounce

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

Team sports don’t hold much appeal for me, with the notable exception of volleyball. I don’t know exactly why that is, but it may have something to do with the lack of violence in the way the game is played. There’s no tackling, tripping, checking, or jostling between players on opposing teams, just the graceful lobbing or purposeful spiking of the ball over the net. Other sports, such as tennis and badminton, have the same appeal, but I like the aspect of team cooperation that is so essential to a good volley.

I once played on a volleyball team and enjoyed it greatly; that is, except for the bruises on my forearms caused by excessive bumping, the aches in my jammed fingers from setting the ball, and the scrapes on my knees from my unsuccessful attempts to keep the ball off the floor. I’ve always thought I’d like to try beach volleyball for that reason, since sand seems much more forgiving than concrete, and the mood is often more casual than serious. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Grande Chartreuse

Keeping the faith quietly

Last Sunday afternoon Morgen and I went to a local theater to see the film Into Great Silence. We expected to be pretty much the only ones there—how many people could really want to sit through a three-hour-long documentary about a group of monks in the French Alps who live in almost complete silence? Especially on a Sunday afternoon, a traditional nap time if ever there was one! But the line stretched halfway down the block, and we were lucky to get seated before the film began. The documentary contained no music except for a few scenes in which the monks were chanting, no voiceover, very limited dialog, and in fact hardly any sounds at all. I’ll admit, in fact, that we both dozed off once or twice (it pays to go with someone who can nudge you when your eyelids droop). But we also left the theater agreeing that we’d just seen one of the coolest things ever: an intimate glimpse into the lives of the Carthusian monks who live at the Grande Chartreuse monastery near Grenoble, France.

That we should be drawn to the story of monks living in silence probably comes as little surprise; the themes of quiet and solitude have come up repeatedly here at Interesting Thing of the Day. But we were frankly shocked to discover that life at the Grande Chartreuse, as depicted in the film, seemed completely at odds with our image of what has been called one of the most ascetic monastic orders in the world. The monks’ cells looked quite comfortable and reasonably spacious. The monastery’s setting in the Alps was simply breathtaking. Even the food looked amazing—no shortage of fresh produce and delicious-looking bread. We also saw a few moments of monks at play and got a small taste of their sense of humor. They seemed, to me, quite comfortable, well-adjusted, and serene—yet intensely focused on their work. I turned, as usual, to the Web to get more details about the monastery and the order of which it is a part. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Influence of Color on Taste Perception

Palette vs. palate

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

It’s not a secret that the way food looks has an effect on our willingness to eat it. That’s why top chefs spend so much time perfecting the presentation of their plates, and food companies spend so much money on marketing and packaging. Of course, taste is the most important sense when it comes to enjoying food, but just how important is sight?

Try this thought experiment: a bowl of yellow-colored gelatin is placed before you. How would you expect it to taste, sweet or sour? It could be that you think it will taste sour, because of your prior experience with other yellow foods that are sour, such as lemons and grapefruits. Or you could think it will taste sweet, based on your memory of other sweet foods that are yellow (like bananas or pineapple). [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

826 National

Pirates, spies, superheroes, and young authors

San Francisco has no shortage of trendy restaurants and interesting shops. If you want to get a good taste of what the city has to offer, and especially if you don’t want to spend lots of money doing it, head to the historic Mission District and stroll up and down Valencia Street. Amidst the art galleries, taquerias, and retro furniture stores you’ll find all sorts of quirky little gems with that quintessential San Francisco character. Perhaps the best example is a store named after its location: 826 Valencia. Its unassuming exterior gives you little clue as to what’s inside, and even after you start looking around, it may take you a few minutes to figure out that you are standing in a pirate supply store. It’s true: if you need to get an eye patch, a Jolly Roger flag, a spyglass, or even a bucket of lard for—well, whatever pirates use lard for—you’re in the right place.

At first, everything in the store seems to be completely serious, as though they expect real pirates to sail in on a daily basis for provisions. A closer inspection reveals that they’re having a good time at their own expense. Take, for example, the signs scattered around the store, such as “Have You Got Scurvy?” (with a list of symptoms), “Goals for the Voyage” (Plunder. Meet new people. Learn valuable new skills.), and even a helpful list of suggested uses for that lard (including “mast greasing” and “fingernail softening”). There’s also a little curtained-off area with a handful of old movie-theater seats facing a large aquarium; you can sit there for as long as you like and watch the residents, including a puffer fish named Otka. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Nyepi

Bali’s day of silence

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Tongue-Eating Louse

A revolting-but-true fish story

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Chinooks

Snow-eating winds of the Rockies

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

For those who live in wintry climates, it can sometimes seem like spring will never arrive. Around the beginning of March in the upper Northern Hemisphere there is a palpable restlessness, an eagerness to shed winter clothing and begin planting spring gardens. At the northern latitude in which I grew up, winter would often linger into April, if not longer, and the sight of snow, which once seemed so novel in the fall, became unbearable.

Amongst these wintry places, however, there are regions where spring can arrive suddenly in the middle of January, but retreat just as suddenly. One such region, an area encompassing the southern half of the Canadian province of Alberta, along with parts of Montana and the Dakotas, is subject to a unique meteorological process that can cause this type of extreme variation in temperature. Known as the Chinook wind, or simply chinooks, this phenomenon is responsible for record-breaking fluctuations of temperature and humidity, as well as bringing relief to a winter-weary population. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Non-Newtonian Fluids

When liquids behave like solids

Like many people, I’ve tried very hard to forget my days in junior high school. That was an unpleasant time in my life for all the usual reasons, and thankfully most of it is now a dim blur. But a few pleasant moments do stand out in my memory. One of those was a report I did for my ninth-grade science class. For reasons I no longer recall, the topic I chose was Pascal’s Law, and I must have prepared well for that 10-minute presentation, because I could probably stand up and give pretty much the same talk today, even though I never went on to study any more about it.

Pascal’s Law describes the behavior of fluids in a closed system, and says, to oversimplify somewhat, that the pressure the fluids exert is always the same throughout the system. This is the principle that enables hydraulic presses to work—a small amount of force applied to a piston pushing down on fluid can exert much more force on a larger connected piston, making it sort of like a liquid lever. The same effect has applications in everything from scuba diving to ventilation systems and dam construction. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Paris Catacombs

Man-made calcium deposits

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

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

•••••

From the archives…

Oil from Garbage

Modern-day alchemy

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

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

•••••

From the archives…

San Francisco's Terra Infirma

Ship to shore

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

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

•••••

From the archives…

The Woodwose

Bigfoot’s European cousin

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

Like the Loch Ness Monster or the Abominable Snowman, I usually think of Bigfoot (or Sasquatch as he’s sometimes known) as a distinctly 20th century phenomenon. However, while it’s true that interest in these legendary creatures was stoked by images captured through the modern means of photography and film, the stories surrounding them actually go back centuries. From the lakes of Scotland, to the heights of the Himalayas, to the Pacific Northwest of America, locals have long attested to the presence of these elusive beings.

Although little-known today, a mythical creature with striking similarities to Bigfoot was believed to exist an even longer time ago in medieval Europe. Called a woodwose, or in Anglo-Saxon wuduwasa, this wild man of the forest was a familiar figure in the literature and visual arts of the Middle Ages. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Truffles

Fungus of the gods

Last year on a trip to Paris, I had one of the most gastronomically memorable days of my life. On a single day, I had the best baguette, the best pain au chocolat, the best cherries, and the best melon I’d ever eaten. Without in any way meaning to slight the fine work of the bakers and produce sellers who contributed to the day’s find, something about the large number of factors that had to randomly converge to produce that experience struck me as cosmically significant. I don’t think it could have been planned or manipulated; it just had to happen, and I had to be in the right place at the right time, too.

The very same thing could be said of the truffle, one of the world’s most expensive foods. I didn’t eat any truffles that day in Paris—they were long out of season. But I couldn’t help thinking that France has a strange power to alter the rules of randomness in such a way as to make exceptionally rare and tasty foods more likely to occur. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Tulipomania

The quest for the perfect tulip

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

In his 1850 novel The Black Tulip, French author Alexandre Dumas (père) describes a competition, initiated by the Dutch city of Haarlem in the 1670s, in which 100,000 florins (150 florins being the average yearly income at the time) would be given to the first person who could grow a black tulip. Although Dumas’s story is fictional, it is based on a very real phenomenon that took place in the Netherlands in the early 17th century.

Between 1634 and 1637, the Netherlands (then called the United Provinces) saw the rise and fall of many fortunes due to an intense period of tulip trading. Now described as tulipomania, it involved the wild overvaluation of certain types of tulip, leading to the eventual crash of the inflated market. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Polyphasic Sleep

Hacking your internal clock

I’ve been thinking a lot about sleep lately. It all started when I saw the movie Into Great Silence, which depicted the lives of Carthusian monks who get by on about six hours of sleep per night, divided into two segments (see The Grande Chartruese). More recently I’ve been testing software called pzizz that’s supposed to facilitate power napping. And the publicist for a sleep researcher I mentioned in my article about sleep debt offered to send me a book on improving the quality of one’s sleep. So sleep has been very much on my mind, especially when I’m downing my third cup of coffee for the day, frantically trying to meet some deadline or other and wishing I could be dreaming instead. In fact, now that I look at how many articles I’ve written that have something to do with sleep, I’m frankly shocked. Clearly sleep is one of my favorite hobbies.

On the other hand, I always have projects stacked up months deep and never seem to have enough time to finish everything on my day’s schedule. So I was intrigued to read about a concept called polyphasic sleep, in which you sleep for several short periods of time each day, rather than one long period as you would in ordinary, or monophasic, sleep. (By the way, if you sleep for a long stretch at night and then take an afternoon nap, you’re practicing a form of biphasic sleep—a schedule I personally enjoy.) Proponents of polyphasic sleep claim that it reduces your overall need for sleep to as little as two hours per day, while keeping you just as alert and healthy as you’d otherwise be. Critics say it’s a dangerous practice that can shorten your lifespan and lead to physical, psychological, and social problems. But lots of people have tried it, and I’ve found it intriguing to read about their experiences. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Bossaball

The game with bounce

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

Team sports don’t hold much appeal for me, with the notable exception of volleyball. I don’t know exactly why that is, but it may have something to do with the lack of violence in the way the game is played. There’s no tackling, tripping, checking, or jostling between players on opposing teams, just the graceful lobbing or purposeful spiking of the ball over the net. Other sports, such as tennis and badminton, have the same appeal, but I like the aspect of team cooperation that is so essential to a good volley.

I once played on a volleyball team and enjoyed it greatly; that is, except for the bruises on my forearms caused by excessive bumping, the aches in my jammed fingers from setting the ball, and the scrapes on my knees from my unsuccessful attempts to keep the ball off the floor. I’ve always thought I’d like to try beach volleyball for that reason, since sand seems much more forgiving than concrete, and the mood is often more casual than serious. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Grande Chartreuse

Keeping the faith quietly

Last Sunday afternoon Morgen and I went to a local theater to see the film Into Great Silence. We expected to be pretty much the only ones there—how many people could really want to sit through a three-hour-long documentary about a group of monks in the French Alps who live in almost complete silence? Especially on a Sunday afternoon, a traditional nap time if ever there was one! But the line stretched halfway down the block, and we were lucky to get seated before the film began. The documentary contained no music except for a few scenes in which the monks were chanting, no voiceover, very limited dialog, and in fact hardly any sounds at all. I’ll admit, in fact, that we both dozed off once or twice (it pays to go with someone who can nudge you when your eyelids droop). But we also left the theater agreeing that we’d just seen one of the coolest things ever: an intimate glimpse into the lives of the Carthusian monks who live at the Grande Chartreuse monastery near Grenoble, France.

That we should be drawn to the story of monks living in silence probably comes as little surprise; the themes of quiet and solitude have come up repeatedly here at Interesting Thing of the Day. But we were frankly shocked to discover that life at the Grande Chartreuse, as depicted in the film, seemed completely at odds with our image of what has been called one of the most ascetic monastic orders in the world. The monks’ cells looked quite comfortable and reasonably spacious. The monastery’s setting in the Alps was simply breathtaking. Even the food looked amazing—no shortage of fresh produce and delicious-looking bread. We also saw a few moments of monks at play and got a small taste of their sense of humor. They seemed, to me, quite comfortable, well-adjusted, and serene—yet intensely focused on their work. I turned, as usual, to the Web to get more details about the monastery and the order of which it is a part. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Influence of Color on Taste Perception

Palette vs. palate

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

It’s not a secret that the way food looks has an effect on our willingness to eat it. That’s why top chefs spend so much time perfecting the presentation of their plates, and food companies spend so much money on marketing and packaging. Of course, taste is the most important sense when it comes to enjoying food, but just how important is sight?

Try this thought experiment: a bowl of yellow-colored gelatin is placed before you. How would you expect it to taste, sweet or sour? It could be that you think it will taste sour, because of your prior experience with other yellow foods that are sour, such as lemons and grapefruits. Or you could think it will taste sweet, based on your memory of other sweet foods that are yellow (like bananas or pineapple). [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

826 National

Pirates, spies, superheroes, and young authors

San Francisco has no shortage of trendy restaurants and interesting shops. If you want to get a good taste of what the city has to offer, and especially if you don’t want to spend lots of money doing it, head to the historic Mission District and stroll up and down Valencia Street. Amidst the art galleries, taquerias, and retro furniture stores you’ll find all sorts of quirky little gems with that quintessential San Francisco character. Perhaps the best example is a store named after its location: 826 Valencia. Its unassuming exterior gives you little clue as to what’s inside, and even after you start looking around, it may take you a few minutes to figure out that you are standing in a pirate supply store. It’s true: if you need to get an eye patch, a Jolly Roger flag, a spyglass, or even a bucket of lard for—well, whatever pirates use lard for—you’re in the right place.

At first, everything in the store seems to be completely serious, as though they expect real pirates to sail in on a daily basis for provisions. A closer inspection reveals that they’re having a good time at their own expense. Take, for example, the signs scattered around the store, such as “Have You Got Scurvy?” (with a list of symptoms), “Goals for the Voyage” (Plunder. Meet new people. Learn valuable new skills.), and even a helpful list of suggested uses for that lard (including “mast greasing” and “fingernail softening”). There’s also a little curtained-off area with a handful of old movie-theater seats facing a large aquarium; you can sit there for as long as you like and watch the residents, including a puffer fish named Otka. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Nyepi

Bali’s day of silence

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Tongue-Eating Louse

A revolting-but-true fish story

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Chinooks

Snow-eating winds of the Rockies

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

For those who live in wintry climates, it can sometimes seem like spring will never arrive. Around the beginning of March in the upper Northern Hemisphere there is a palpable restlessness, an eagerness to shed winter clothing and begin planting spring gardens. At the northern latitude in which I grew up, winter would often linger into April, if not longer, and the sight of snow, which once seemed so novel in the fall, became unbearable.

Amongst these wintry places, however, there are regions where spring can arrive suddenly in the middle of January, but retreat just as suddenly. One such region, an area encompassing the southern half of the Canadian province of Alberta, along with parts of Montana and the Dakotas, is subject to a unique meteorological process that can cause this type of extreme variation in temperature. Known as the Chinook wind, or simply chinooks, this phenomenon is responsible for record-breaking fluctuations of temperature and humidity, as well as bringing relief to a winter-weary population. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Non-Newtonian Fluids

When liquids behave like solids

Like many people, I’ve tried very hard to forget my days in junior high school. That was an unpleasant time in my life for all the usual reasons, and thankfully most of it is now a dim blur. But a few pleasant moments do stand out in my memory. One of those was a report I did for my ninth-grade science class. For reasons I no longer recall, the topic I chose was Pascal’s Law, and I must have prepared well for that 10-minute presentation, because I could probably stand up and give pretty much the same talk today, even though I never went on to study any more about it.

Pascal’s Law describes the behavior of fluids in a closed system, and says, to oversimplify somewhat, that the pressure the fluids exert is always the same throughout the system. This is the principle that enables hydraulic presses to work—a small amount of force applied to a piston pushing down on fluid can exert much more force on a larger connected piston, making it sort of like a liquid lever. The same effect has applications in everything from scuba diving to ventilation systems and dam construction. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Woodwose

Bigfoot’s European cousin

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

Like the Loch Ness Monster or the Abominable Snowman, I usually think of Bigfoot (or Sasquatch as he’s sometimes known) as a distinctly 20th century phenomenon. However, while it’s true that interest in these legendary creatures was stoked by images captured through the modern means of photography and film, the stories surrounding them actually go back centuries. From the lakes of Scotland, to the heights of the Himalayas, to the Pacific Northwest of America, locals have long attested to the presence of these elusive beings.

Although little-known today, a mythical creature with striking similarities to Bigfoot was believed to exist an even longer time ago in medieval Europe. Called a woodwose, or in Anglo-Saxon wuduwasa, this wild man of the forest was a familiar figure in the literature and visual arts of the Middle Ages. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Tulipomania

The quest for the perfect tulip

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

In his 1850 novel The Black Tulip, French author Alexandre Dumas (père) describes a competition, initiated by the Dutch city of Haarlem in the 1670s, in which 100,000 florins (150 florins being the average yearly income at the time) would be given to the first person who could grow a black tulip. Although Dumas’s story is fictional, it is based on a very real phenomenon that took place in the Netherlands in the early 17th century.

Between 1634 and 1637, the Netherlands (then called the United Provinces) saw the rise and fall of many fortunes due to an intense period of tulip trading. Now described as tulipomania, it involved the wild overvaluation of certain types of tulip, leading to the eventual crash of the inflated market. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Polyphasic Sleep

Hacking your internal clock

I’ve been thinking a lot about sleep lately. It all started when I saw the movie Into Great Silence, which depicted the lives of Carthusian monks who get by on about six hours of sleep per night, divided into two segments (see The Grande Chartruese). More recently I’ve been testing software called pzizz that’s supposed to facilitate power napping. And the publicist for a sleep researcher I mentioned in my article about sleep debt offered to send me a book on improving the quality of one’s sleep. So sleep has been very much on my mind, especially when I’m downing my third cup of coffee for the day, frantically trying to meet some deadline or other and wishing I could be dreaming instead. In fact, now that I look at how many articles I’ve written that have something to do with sleep, I’m frankly shocked. Clearly sleep is one of my favorite hobbies.

On the other hand, I always have projects stacked up months deep and never seem to have enough time to finish everything on my day’s schedule. So I was intrigued to read about a concept called polyphasic sleep, in which you sleep for several short periods of time each day, rather than one long period as you would in ordinary, or monophasic, sleep. (By the way, if you sleep for a long stretch at night and then take an afternoon nap, you’re practicing a form of biphasic sleep—a schedule I personally enjoy.) Proponents of polyphasic sleep claim that it reduces your overall need for sleep to as little as two hours per day, while keeping you just as alert and healthy as you’d otherwise be. Critics say it’s a dangerous practice that can shorten your lifespan and lead to physical, psychological, and social problems. But lots of people have tried it, and I’ve found it intriguing to read about their experiences. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Bossaball

The game with bounce

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

Team sports don’t hold much appeal for me, with the notable exception of volleyball. I don’t know exactly why that is, but it may have something to do with the lack of violence in the way the game is played. There’s no tackling, tripping, checking, or jostling between players on opposing teams, just the graceful lobbing or purposeful spiking of the ball over the net. Other sports, such as tennis and badminton, have the same appeal, but I like the aspect of team cooperation that is so essential to a good volley.

I once played on a volleyball team and enjoyed it greatly; that is, except for the bruises on my forearms caused by excessive bumping, the aches in my jammed fingers from setting the ball, and the scrapes on my knees from my unsuccessful attempts to keep the ball off the floor. I’ve always thought I’d like to try beach volleyball for that reason, since sand seems much more forgiving than concrete, and the mood is often more casual than serious. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Grande Chartreuse

Keeping the faith quietly

Last Sunday afternoon Morgen and I went to a local theater to see the film Into Great Silence. We expected to be pretty much the only ones there—how many people could really want to sit through a three-hour-long documentary about a group of monks in the French Alps who live in almost complete silence? Especially on a Sunday afternoon, a traditional nap time if ever there was one! But the line stretched halfway down the block, and we were lucky to get seated before the film began. The documentary contained no music except for a few scenes in which the monks were chanting, no voiceover, very limited dialog, and in fact hardly any sounds at all. I’ll admit, in fact, that we both dozed off once or twice (it pays to go with someone who can nudge you when your eyelids droop). But we also left the theater agreeing that we’d just seen one of the coolest things ever: an intimate glimpse into the lives of the Carthusian monks who live at the Grande Chartreuse monastery near Grenoble, France.

That we should be drawn to the story of monks living in silence probably comes as little surprise; the themes of quiet and solitude have come up repeatedly here at Interesting Thing of the Day. But we were frankly shocked to discover that life at the Grande Chartreuse, as depicted in the film, seemed completely at odds with our image of what has been called one of the most ascetic monastic orders in the world. The monks’ cells looked quite comfortable and reasonably spacious. The monastery’s setting in the Alps was simply breathtaking. Even the food looked amazing—no shortage of fresh produce and delicious-looking bread. We also saw a few moments of monks at play and got a small taste of their sense of humor. They seemed, to me, quite comfortable, well-adjusted, and serene—yet intensely focused on their work. I turned, as usual, to the Web to get more details about the monastery and the order of which it is a part. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Influence of Color on Taste Perception

Palette vs. palate

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

It’s not a secret that the way food looks has an effect on our willingness to eat it. That’s why top chefs spend so much time perfecting the presentation of their plates, and food companies spend so much money on marketing and packaging. Of course, taste is the most important sense when it comes to enjoying food, but just how important is sight?

Try this thought experiment: a bowl of yellow-colored gelatin is placed before you. How would you expect it to taste, sweet or sour? It could be that you think it will taste sour, because of your prior experience with other yellow foods that are sour, such as lemons and grapefruits. Or you could think it will taste sweet, based on your memory of other sweet foods that are yellow (like bananas or pineapple). [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

826 National

Pirates, spies, superheroes, and young authors

San Francisco has no shortage of trendy restaurants and interesting shops. If you want to get a good taste of what the city has to offer, and especially if you don’t want to spend lots of money doing it, head to the historic Mission District and stroll up and down Valencia Street. Amidst the art galleries, taquerias, and retro furniture stores you’ll find all sorts of quirky little gems with that quintessential San Francisco character. Perhaps the best example is a store named after its location: 826 Valencia. Its unassuming exterior gives you little clue as to what’s inside, and even after you start looking around, it may take you a few minutes to figure out that you are standing in a pirate supply store. It’s true: if you need to get an eye patch, a Jolly Roger flag, a spyglass, or even a bucket of lard for—well, whatever pirates use lard for—you’re in the right place.

At first, everything in the store seems to be completely serious, as though they expect real pirates to sail in on a daily basis for provisions. A closer inspection reveals that they’re having a good time at their own expense. Take, for example, the signs scattered around the store, such as “Have You Got Scurvy?” (with a list of symptoms), “Goals for the Voyage” (Plunder. Meet new people. Learn valuable new skills.), and even a helpful list of suggested uses for that lard (including “mast greasing” and “fingernail softening”). There’s also a little curtained-off area with a handful of old movie-theater seats facing a large aquarium; you can sit there for as long as you like and watch the residents, including a puffer fish named Otka. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Nyepi

Bali’s day of silence

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Tongue-Eating Louse

A revolting-but-true fish story

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Chinooks

Snow-eating winds of the Rockies

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

For those who live in wintry climates, it can sometimes seem like spring will never arrive. Around the beginning of March in the upper Northern Hemisphere there is a palpable restlessness, an eagerness to shed winter clothing and begin planting spring gardens. At the northern latitude in which I grew up, winter would often linger into April, if not longer, and the sight of snow, which once seemed so novel in the fall, became unbearable.

Amongst these wintry places, however, there are regions where spring can arrive suddenly in the middle of January, but retreat just as suddenly. One such region, an area encompassing the southern half of the Canadian province of Alberta, along with parts of Montana and the Dakotas, is subject to a unique meteorological process that can cause this type of extreme variation in temperature. Known as the Chinook wind, or simply chinooks, this phenomenon is responsible for record-breaking fluctuations of temperature and humidity, as well as bringing relief to a winter-weary population. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Non-Newtonian Fluids

When liquids behave like solids

Like many people, I’ve tried very hard to forget my days in junior high school. That was an unpleasant time in my life for all the usual reasons, and thankfully most of it is now a dim blur. But a few pleasant moments do stand out in my memory. One of those was a report I did for my ninth-grade science class. For reasons I no longer recall, the topic I chose was Pascal’s Law, and I must have prepared well for that 10-minute presentation, because I could probably stand up and give pretty much the same talk today, even though I never went on to study any more about it.

Pascal’s Law describes the behavior of fluids in a closed system, and says, to oversimplify somewhat, that the pressure the fluids exert is always the same throughout the system. This is the principle that enables hydraulic presses to work—a small amount of force applied to a piston pushing down on fluid can exert much more force on a larger connected piston, making it sort of like a liquid lever. The same effect has applications in everything from scuba diving to ventilation systems and dam construction. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Paris Catacombs

Man-made calcium deposits

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

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

•••••

From the archives…

Oil from Garbage

Modern-day alchemy

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

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

•••••

From the archives…

San Francisco's Terra Infirma

Ship to shore

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

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

•••••

From the archives…

Truffles

Fungus of the gods

Last year on a trip to Paris, I had one of the most gastronomically memorable days of my life. On a single day, I had the best baguette, the best pain au chocolat, the best cherries, and the best melon I’d ever eaten. Without in any way meaning to slight the fine work of the bakers and produce sellers who contributed to the day’s find, something about the large number of factors that had to randomly converge to produce that experience struck me as cosmically significant. I don’t think it could have been planned or manipulated; it just had to happen, and I had to be in the right place at the right time, too.

The very same thing could be said of the truffle, one of the world’s most expensive foods. I didn’t eat any truffles that day in Paris—they were long out of season. But I couldn’t help thinking that France has a strange power to alter the rules of randomness in such a way as to make exceptionally rare and tasty foods more likely to occur. [Article Continues…]

•••••

Archives

August 2007
December 2006
November 2006
September 2006
May 2005
April 2005
March 2005
February 2005
January 2005
December 2004
November 2004
October 2004
September 2004
August 2004
July 2004
June 2004