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…

Absinthe

The tale of the Green Fairy

Author’s Note: This article was updated on April 30, 2008 to reflect changes in absinthe’s legal status in the United States.

Picture yourself at the end of the nineteenth century in France. The Bohemian movement is in full swing. Revolutions in art and literature are brewing, technology is advancing rapidly, and more and more people are putting their creative efforts into the expansion of culture. You walk into a Paris café and see someone sitting at a corner table, scribbling or sketching madly, eyes fiery with enthusiasm. More than likely you see on the same table a glass containing a cloudy liquid—absinthe, the legendary “green muse” to which many artists of the day attribute their creative insights. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Robots that Smell

Artificial noses and beyond

While out for a walk in my neighborhood, I caught a whiff of something that instantly made me think of my grandmother’s house. I haven’t experienced that smell—either from its original source or elsewhere—in well over a decade, but the memory of being back at my grandmother’s house was immediate and striking. On the other hand, I can’t really remember or recreate that smell in my mind; either it’s there or it isn’t. I have convenient analog and digital methods of recording images and sounds so that I can see and hear them later, but no way to capture the scent of a dish at a restaurant, a favorite vacation spot, or any other smell that moves me in some way.

I don’t normally think of smelling as being something within the province of machines. I understand, of course, that devices like smoke detectors and breathalyzers perform what amounts to mechanical olfaction of sorts, but I was still sort of surprised to learn that increasingly sophisticated artificial noses are being incorporated into robots and other devices. What intrigues me more than anything is how such sensors might work. How does one go about measuring and quantifying something as broad and seemingly subjective as smell? [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Hikaru Dorodango

Mud balls as art

Children, I have observed, seem to have an innate affinity for dirt. No matter how recently a parent has dressed the child in freshly laundered clothes, no matter how carefully the parent has attempted to keep the child geographically separated from any substance that might soil or stain, it is just not possible to keep a child clean for more than 60 seconds. I use the word “affinity” advisedly, because it implies not merely a liking, a preference, but a chemical attraction. Kids clearly have a talent for finding dirt, but also, dirt finds them. If you’re a parent, you know what I’m talking about. Eventually, having spent a sum equivalent to your monthly grocery budget on moist towelettes, you give up on keeping the child perpetually clean and set a new, lower but potentially reachable standard of not-entirely-covered-with-mud.

Mud, of course, is that particular species of dirt that children seem to find most fascinating (and which apparently finds them fascinating as well). As far as kids are concerned, mud is cool because it’s gooey and squishy and feels neat and adheres very effectively to your sister’s dress when flung from across the yard. Grown-ups find mud icky for exactly the same reasons, and dried mud, well, that’s somehow an even greater insult to cleanliness—it’s just so…unsightly. Among the words not commonly associated with mud are smooth, shiny, and beautiful. But that’s changing now, thanks to the renaissance of a traditional Japanese art form known as dorodango, shiny mud balls (or, more specifically, hikaru dorodango, ultra-glossy mud balls). Parents are now not only actively encouraging their kids to play in the mud, they’re getting their own hands dirty too as they spend hours refining ordinary dirt into elegant sculptures. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Cow Sharing

Getting the milk for free

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

Humans have been raising cows and drinking their milk for thousands of years, and for most of that time there was only one form that the milk came in: straight from the cow. Different cultures developed ways of transforming that milk into other foods, from yogurt to cheese to butter, but the original liquid stayed the same.

However, when you visit an average supermarket in Europe or North America these days, you are faced with a plethora of choices in the milk aisle. You can have your milk homogenized, that is with the butterfat distributed throughout the milk, or you can buy only the cream skimmed from the top. You can have it in a low-fat or high-fat form, and you can buy it with part of the lactose removed for those who are lactose-intolerant. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Phenomenology

The science of experience

About halfway through college, I decided I was going to major in philosophy. I was one of only four or five philosophy majors in my class, and most of my friends simply couldn’t comprehend why I chose such a field. For one thing, philosophy was obviously the most boring subject in the world, and for another, there didn’t seem to be anything you could do with a degree in philosophy. My classmates would say things like, “I’m majoring in psychology, which means I can become a psychologist. I can have an office and an ad in the yellow pages and people will pay to come talk to me. But there aren’t any philosophers in the yellow pages—look it up. How do you expect to earn a living as a philosopher?” I had no good answer to that question. I didn’t think I wanted to teach philosophy, which is the usual way philosophers make money. But I wasn’t worried about long-term career options or marketability. All I knew was that of all the subjects I’d studied in the past two years, philosophy was the only one that interested me enough to take seriously. It seemed important in a way that, say, history or even science did not—it was a search for answers to the Big Questions: Is there a God? What is the nature of existence? What does it mean to be human? How do we determine right and wrong? I couldn’t imagine wasting my time on lesser questions.

It was not long, of course, before we began talking about Descartes, who in the early 17th century famously said, “I think, therefore I am.” This was not an idle comment; Descartes was looking for a starting point for his philosophical inquiries, some basic principle that, no matter what, could not be doubted. He decided to start by tossing out any belief that could conceivably—even under the unlikeliest conditions—be doubted. For Descartes, it was impossible to doubt his own existence. One could be mistaken about the interpretation of sensory data, but not, he felt, about the experience of thinking. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Tactile Dome

Getting the feel of the Exploratorium

San Francisco’s Exploratorium is an immense (and immensely popular) hands-on science museum. Exhibits cover the usual range of subjects—electricity, physics, optics, biology, and so on—but with a degree of interactive friendliness that’s rare even in the best science museums (and I’ve seen quite a few). Almost everything is designed to be touched, played with, and experimented on—even by young children, whose destructive impulses know no bounds.

Although I had been to the Exploratorium a number of times, there was one exhibit I’d never experienced but always been curious about: something called the Tactile Dome. This is an exhibit for which you must make an advance reservation (and pay extra), and I had never had the foresight to call ahead before visiting the museum to see if there was an open slot. On a visit last summer, when I went to purchase my ticket, I happened to notice a sign saying there were openings at the dome that afternoon. I immediately signed up—after listening to a short speech on all the medical and psychological conditions that would preclude a safe visit and consenting to the non-refundability of the ticket. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Silent Retreats

A different way of listening

In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, one of the main characters is an alien named Ford Prefect from a planet near Betelgeuse. Although he looks, talks, and acts more or less human, there are many things about earthlings that puzzle him, such as the fact that they seem to talk all the time—even if only to repeat the obvious. Over the course of several months, he comes up with a number of theories for this behavior, one of which I found particularly insightful: “If human beings don’t keep exercising their lips, he thought, their brains start working” (p. 49). I’ve frequently noticed, on the one hand, that many people like to surround themselves with sound all the time (making their own if all else fails); and on the other hand, that contemplation is a foreign and uncomfortable concept to most of us. An increasingly popular way of overcoming the sound habit, at least briefly, is to go on a silent retreat.

All Action and No Talk
The idea of a silent retreat is simple: you go somewhere relatively quiet and don’t talk—for a day, a few days, or even longer. Silent retreats usually involve a group of people, so the significant part is not so much that you yourself aren’t speaking but that others aren’t speaking to you. In addition, most other artificial sounds—radio, TV, music, and so on—are avoided, so that for the most part, participants don’t hear any words for long periods of time. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Saturna Island

Less is more (interesting)

I have a special fondness for contradiction—or more accurately, contrariety—the apparent not-going-together of things I like or believe equally. Read enough of these articles and the theme of paradox will be quite evident. For example, I love living in the city, and can’t imagine being without the energy, resources, and constant stimulation it provides. But I could say with equal conviction that I’m happiest when I’m far away from people, noise, and chaos, immersed in the solitude of nature. As a result, when planning a vacation, I’m never quite sure whether I want to “get away from it all” or experience the novelty and adventure of another urban area. Las Vegas, New York, and Paris are among my favorite places to visit; on the other hand, I also enjoy a meditative retreat, a long weekend in the desert, or a lazy trip through the countryside of Provence. But my very favorite place to go for peace and quiet is Saturna Island.

Just Across the Strait
Perhaps I should begin with a quick geography lesson. British Columbia is Canada’s westernmost province. Its largest city, Vancouver (where I lived for three years), is on the Pacific coast, just a few hours’ drive north of Seattle. Not far off the coast—about an hour and a half by ferry—is Vancouver Island, an immense piece of land with an area about the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined. On Vancouver Island you’ll find Victoria, the capital city of British Columbia, and about three-quarters of a million people. The stretch of ocean between the mainland and Vancouver Island is known as the Georgia Strait, and scattered along the 300-mile (483km) length of the strait are hundreds of smaller islands, only a handful of which are inhabited. The Gulf Islands, as they are called, have all the natural beauty typical of the Pacific Northwest, and a much more relaxed pace of life than the big cities. [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…

Absinthe

The tale of the Green Fairy

Author’s Note: This article was updated on April 30, 2008 to reflect changes in absinthe’s legal status in the United States.

Picture yourself at the end of the nineteenth century in France. The Bohemian movement is in full swing. Revolutions in art and literature are brewing, technology is advancing rapidly, and more and more people are putting their creative efforts into the expansion of culture. You walk into a Paris café and see someone sitting at a corner table, scribbling or sketching madly, eyes fiery with enthusiasm. More than likely you see on the same table a glass containing a cloudy liquid—absinthe, the legendary “green muse” to which many artists of the day attribute their creative insights. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Robots that Smell

Artificial noses and beyond

While out for a walk in my neighborhood, I caught a whiff of something that instantly made me think of my grandmother’s house. I haven’t experienced that smell—either from its original source or elsewhere—in well over a decade, but the memory of being back at my grandmother’s house was immediate and striking. On the other hand, I can’t really remember or recreate that smell in my mind; either it’s there or it isn’t. I have convenient analog and digital methods of recording images and sounds so that I can see and hear them later, but no way to capture the scent of a dish at a restaurant, a favorite vacation spot, or any other smell that moves me in some way.

I don’t normally think of smelling as being something within the province of machines. I understand, of course, that devices like smoke detectors and breathalyzers perform what amounts to mechanical olfaction of sorts, but I was still sort of surprised to learn that increasingly sophisticated artificial noses are being incorporated into robots and other devices. What intrigues me more than anything is how such sensors might work. How does one go about measuring and quantifying something as broad and seemingly subjective as smell? [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Hikaru Dorodango

Mud balls as art

Children, I have observed, seem to have an innate affinity for dirt. No matter how recently a parent has dressed the child in freshly laundered clothes, no matter how carefully the parent has attempted to keep the child geographically separated from any substance that might soil or stain, it is just not possible to keep a child clean for more than 60 seconds. I use the word “affinity” advisedly, because it implies not merely a liking, a preference, but a chemical attraction. Kids clearly have a talent for finding dirt, but also, dirt finds them. If you’re a parent, you know what I’m talking about. Eventually, having spent a sum equivalent to your monthly grocery budget on moist towelettes, you give up on keeping the child perpetually clean and set a new, lower but potentially reachable standard of not-entirely-covered-with-mud.

Mud, of course, is that particular species of dirt that children seem to find most fascinating (and which apparently finds them fascinating as well). As far as kids are concerned, mud is cool because it’s gooey and squishy and feels neat and adheres very effectively to your sister’s dress when flung from across the yard. Grown-ups find mud icky for exactly the same reasons, and dried mud, well, that’s somehow an even greater insult to cleanliness—it’s just so…unsightly. Among the words not commonly associated with mud are smooth, shiny, and beautiful. But that’s changing now, thanks to the renaissance of a traditional Japanese art form known as dorodango, shiny mud balls (or, more specifically, hikaru dorodango, ultra-glossy mud balls). Parents are now not only actively encouraging their kids to play in the mud, they’re getting their own hands dirty too as they spend hours refining ordinary dirt into elegant sculptures. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Cow Sharing

Getting the milk for free

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

Humans have been raising cows and drinking their milk for thousands of years, and for most of that time there was only one form that the milk came in: straight from the cow. Different cultures developed ways of transforming that milk into other foods, from yogurt to cheese to butter, but the original liquid stayed the same.

However, when you visit an average supermarket in Europe or North America these days, you are faced with a plethora of choices in the milk aisle. You can have your milk homogenized, that is with the butterfat distributed throughout the milk, or you can buy only the cream skimmed from the top. You can have it in a low-fat or high-fat form, and you can buy it with part of the lactose removed for those who are lactose-intolerant. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Phenomenology

The science of experience

About halfway through college, I decided I was going to major in philosophy. I was one of only four or five philosophy majors in my class, and most of my friends simply couldn’t comprehend why I chose such a field. For one thing, philosophy was obviously the most boring subject in the world, and for another, there didn’t seem to be anything you could do with a degree in philosophy. My classmates would say things like, “I’m majoring in psychology, which means I can become a psychologist. I can have an office and an ad in the yellow pages and people will pay to come talk to me. But there aren’t any philosophers in the yellow pages—look it up. How do you expect to earn a living as a philosopher?” I had no good answer to that question. I didn’t think I wanted to teach philosophy, which is the usual way philosophers make money. But I wasn’t worried about long-term career options or marketability. All I knew was that of all the subjects I’d studied in the past two years, philosophy was the only one that interested me enough to take seriously. It seemed important in a way that, say, history or even science did not—it was a search for answers to the Big Questions: Is there a God? What is the nature of existence? What does it mean to be human? How do we determine right and wrong? I couldn’t imagine wasting my time on lesser questions.

It was not long, of course, before we began talking about Descartes, who in the early 17th century famously said, “I think, therefore I am.” This was not an idle comment; Descartes was looking for a starting point for his philosophical inquiries, some basic principle that, no matter what, could not be doubted. He decided to start by tossing out any belief that could conceivably—even under the unlikeliest conditions—be doubted. For Descartes, it was impossible to doubt his own existence. One could be mistaken about the interpretation of sensory data, but not, he felt, about the experience of thinking. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Tactile Dome

Getting the feel of the Exploratorium

San Francisco’s Exploratorium is an immense (and immensely popular) hands-on science museum. Exhibits cover the usual range of subjects—electricity, physics, optics, biology, and so on—but with a degree of interactive friendliness that’s rare even in the best science museums (and I’ve seen quite a few). Almost everything is designed to be touched, played with, and experimented on—even by young children, whose destructive impulses know no bounds.

Although I had been to the Exploratorium a number of times, there was one exhibit I’d never experienced but always been curious about: something called the Tactile Dome. This is an exhibit for which you must make an advance reservation (and pay extra), and I had never had the foresight to call ahead before visiting the museum to see if there was an open slot. On a visit last summer, when I went to purchase my ticket, I happened to notice a sign saying there were openings at the dome that afternoon. I immediately signed up—after listening to a short speech on all the medical and psychological conditions that would preclude a safe visit and consenting to the non-refundability of the ticket. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Silent Retreats

A different way of listening

In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, one of the main characters is an alien named Ford Prefect from a planet near Betelgeuse. Although he looks, talks, and acts more or less human, there are many things about earthlings that puzzle him, such as the fact that they seem to talk all the time—even if only to repeat the obvious. Over the course of several months, he comes up with a number of theories for this behavior, one of which I found particularly insightful: “If human beings don’t keep exercising their lips, he thought, their brains start working” (p. 49). I’ve frequently noticed, on the one hand, that many people like to surround themselves with sound all the time (making their own if all else fails); and on the other hand, that contemplation is a foreign and uncomfortable concept to most of us. An increasingly popular way of overcoming the sound habit, at least briefly, is to go on a silent retreat.

All Action and No Talk
The idea of a silent retreat is simple: you go somewhere relatively quiet and don’t talk—for a day, a few days, or even longer. Silent retreats usually involve a group of people, so the significant part is not so much that you yourself aren’t speaking but that others aren’t speaking to you. In addition, most other artificial sounds—radio, TV, music, and so on—are avoided, so that for the most part, participants don’t hear any words for long periods of time. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Saturna Island

Less is more (interesting)

I have a special fondness for contradiction—or more accurately, contrariety—the apparent not-going-together of things I like or believe equally. Read enough of these articles and the theme of paradox will be quite evident. For example, I love living in the city, and can’t imagine being without the energy, resources, and constant stimulation it provides. But I could say with equal conviction that I’m happiest when I’m far away from people, noise, and chaos, immersed in the solitude of nature. As a result, when planning a vacation, I’m never quite sure whether I want to “get away from it all” or experience the novelty and adventure of another urban area. Las Vegas, New York, and Paris are among my favorite places to visit; on the other hand, I also enjoy a meditative retreat, a long weekend in the desert, or a lazy trip through the countryside of Provence. But my very favorite place to go for peace and quiet is Saturna Island.

Just Across the Strait
Perhaps I should begin with a quick geography lesson. British Columbia is Canada’s westernmost province. Its largest city, Vancouver (where I lived for three years), is on the Pacific coast, just a few hours’ drive north of Seattle. Not far off the coast—about an hour and a half by ferry—is Vancouver Island, an immense piece of land with an area about the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined. On Vancouver Island you’ll find Victoria, the capital city of British Columbia, and about three-quarters of a million people. The stretch of ocean between the mainland and Vancouver Island is known as the Georgia Strait, and scattered along the 300-mile (483km) length of the strait are hundreds of smaller islands, only a handful of which are inhabited. The Gulf Islands, as they are called, have all the natural beauty typical of the Pacific Northwest, and a much more relaxed pace of life than the big cities. [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…

Absinthe

The tale of the Green Fairy

Author’s Note: This article was updated on April 30, 2008 to reflect changes in absinthe’s legal status in the United States.

Picture yourself at the end of the nineteenth century in France. The Bohemian movement is in full swing. Revolutions in art and literature are brewing, technology is advancing rapidly, and more and more people are putting their creative efforts into the expansion of culture. You walk into a Paris café and see someone sitting at a corner table, scribbling or sketching madly, eyes fiery with enthusiasm. More than likely you see on the same table a glass containing a cloudy liquid—absinthe, the legendary “green muse” to which many artists of the day attribute their creative insights. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Robots that Smell

Artificial noses and beyond

While out for a walk in my neighborhood, I caught a whiff of something that instantly made me think of my grandmother’s house. I haven’t experienced that smell—either from its original source or elsewhere—in well over a decade, but the memory of being back at my grandmother’s house was immediate and striking. On the other hand, I can’t really remember or recreate that smell in my mind; either it’s there or it isn’t. I have convenient analog and digital methods of recording images and sounds so that I can see and hear them later, but no way to capture the scent of a dish at a restaurant, a favorite vacation spot, or any other smell that moves me in some way.

I don’t normally think of smelling as being something within the province of machines. I understand, of course, that devices like smoke detectors and breathalyzers perform what amounts to mechanical olfaction of sorts, but I was still sort of surprised to learn that increasingly sophisticated artificial noses are being incorporated into robots and other devices. What intrigues me more than anything is how such sensors might work. How does one go about measuring and quantifying something as broad and seemingly subjective as smell? [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Hikaru Dorodango

Mud balls as art

Children, I have observed, seem to have an innate affinity for dirt. No matter how recently a parent has dressed the child in freshly laundered clothes, no matter how carefully the parent has attempted to keep the child geographically separated from any substance that might soil or stain, it is just not possible to keep a child clean for more than 60 seconds. I use the word “affinity” advisedly, because it implies not merely a liking, a preference, but a chemical attraction. Kids clearly have a talent for finding dirt, but also, dirt finds them. If you’re a parent, you know what I’m talking about. Eventually, having spent a sum equivalent to your monthly grocery budget on moist towelettes, you give up on keeping the child perpetually clean and set a new, lower but potentially reachable standard of not-entirely-covered-with-mud.

Mud, of course, is that particular species of dirt that children seem to find most fascinating (and which apparently finds them fascinating as well). As far as kids are concerned, mud is cool because it’s gooey and squishy and feels neat and adheres very effectively to your sister’s dress when flung from across the yard. Grown-ups find mud icky for exactly the same reasons, and dried mud, well, that’s somehow an even greater insult to cleanliness—it’s just so…unsightly. Among the words not commonly associated with mud are smooth, shiny, and beautiful. But that’s changing now, thanks to the renaissance of a traditional Japanese art form known as dorodango, shiny mud balls (or, more specifically, hikaru dorodango, ultra-glossy mud balls). Parents are now not only actively encouraging their kids to play in the mud, they’re getting their own hands dirty too as they spend hours refining ordinary dirt into elegant sculptures. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Cow Sharing

Getting the milk for free

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

Humans have been raising cows and drinking their milk for thousands of years, and for most of that time there was only one form that the milk came in: straight from the cow. Different cultures developed ways of transforming that milk into other foods, from yogurt to cheese to butter, but the original liquid stayed the same.

However, when you visit an average supermarket in Europe or North America these days, you are faced with a plethora of choices in the milk aisle. You can have your milk homogenized, that is with the butterfat distributed throughout the milk, or you can buy only the cream skimmed from the top. You can have it in a low-fat or high-fat form, and you can buy it with part of the lactose removed for those who are lactose-intolerant. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Phenomenology

The science of experience

About halfway through college, I decided I was going to major in philosophy. I was one of only four or five philosophy majors in my class, and most of my friends simply couldn’t comprehend why I chose such a field. For one thing, philosophy was obviously the most boring subject in the world, and for another, there didn’t seem to be anything you could do with a degree in philosophy. My classmates would say things like, “I’m majoring in psychology, which means I can become a psychologist. I can have an office and an ad in the yellow pages and people will pay to come talk to me. But there aren’t any philosophers in the yellow pages—look it up. How do you expect to earn a living as a philosopher?” I had no good answer to that question. I didn’t think I wanted to teach philosophy, which is the usual way philosophers make money. But I wasn’t worried about long-term career options or marketability. All I knew was that of all the subjects I’d studied in the past two years, philosophy was the only one that interested me enough to take seriously. It seemed important in a way that, say, history or even science did not—it was a search for answers to the Big Questions: Is there a God? What is the nature of existence? What does it mean to be human? How do we determine right and wrong? I couldn’t imagine wasting my time on lesser questions.

It was not long, of course, before we began talking about Descartes, who in the early 17th century famously said, “I think, therefore I am.” This was not an idle comment; Descartes was looking for a starting point for his philosophical inquiries, some basic principle that, no matter what, could not be doubted. He decided to start by tossing out any belief that could conceivably—even under the unlikeliest conditions—be doubted. For Descartes, it was impossible to doubt his own existence. One could be mistaken about the interpretation of sensory data, but not, he felt, about the experience of thinking. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Tactile Dome

Getting the feel of the Exploratorium

San Francisco’s Exploratorium is an immense (and immensely popular) hands-on science museum. Exhibits cover the usual range of subjects—electricity, physics, optics, biology, and so on—but with a degree of interactive friendliness that’s rare even in the best science museums (and I’ve seen quite a few). Almost everything is designed to be touched, played with, and experimented on—even by young children, whose destructive impulses know no bounds.

Although I had been to the Exploratorium a number of times, there was one exhibit I’d never experienced but always been curious about: something called the Tactile Dome. This is an exhibit for which you must make an advance reservation (and pay extra), and I had never had the foresight to call ahead before visiting the museum to see if there was an open slot. On a visit last summer, when I went to purchase my ticket, I happened to notice a sign saying there were openings at the dome that afternoon. I immediately signed up—after listening to a short speech on all the medical and psychological conditions that would preclude a safe visit and consenting to the non-refundability of the ticket. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Silent Retreats

A different way of listening

In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, one of the main characters is an alien named Ford Prefect from a planet near Betelgeuse. Although he looks, talks, and acts more or less human, there are many things about earthlings that puzzle him, such as the fact that they seem to talk all the time—even if only to repeat the obvious. Over the course of several months, he comes up with a number of theories for this behavior, one of which I found particularly insightful: “If human beings don’t keep exercising their lips, he thought, their brains start working” (p. 49). I’ve frequently noticed, on the one hand, that many people like to surround themselves with sound all the time (making their own if all else fails); and on the other hand, that contemplation is a foreign and uncomfortable concept to most of us. An increasingly popular way of overcoming the sound habit, at least briefly, is to go on a silent retreat.

All Action and No Talk
The idea of a silent retreat is simple: you go somewhere relatively quiet and don’t talk—for a day, a few days, or even longer. Silent retreats usually involve a group of people, so the significant part is not so much that you yourself aren’t speaking but that others aren’t speaking to you. In addition, most other artificial sounds—radio, TV, music, and so on—are avoided, so that for the most part, participants don’t hear any words for long periods of time. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Saturna Island

Less is more (interesting)

I have a special fondness for contradiction—or more accurately, contrariety—the apparent not-going-together of things I like or believe equally. Read enough of these articles and the theme of paradox will be quite evident. For example, I love living in the city, and can’t imagine being without the energy, resources, and constant stimulation it provides. But I could say with equal conviction that I’m happiest when I’m far away from people, noise, and chaos, immersed in the solitude of nature. As a result, when planning a vacation, I’m never quite sure whether I want to “get away from it all” or experience the novelty and adventure of another urban area. Las Vegas, New York, and Paris are among my favorite places to visit; on the other hand, I also enjoy a meditative retreat, a long weekend in the desert, or a lazy trip through the countryside of Provence. But my very favorite place to go for peace and quiet is Saturna Island.

Just Across the Strait
Perhaps I should begin with a quick geography lesson. British Columbia is Canada’s westernmost province. Its largest city, Vancouver (where I lived for three years), is on the Pacific coast, just a few hours’ drive north of Seattle. Not far off the coast—about an hour and a half by ferry—is Vancouver Island, an immense piece of land with an area about the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined. On Vancouver Island you’ll find Victoria, the capital city of British Columbia, and about three-quarters of a million people. The stretch of ocean between the mainland and Vancouver Island is known as the Georgia Strait, and scattered along the 300-mile (483km) length of the strait are hundreds of smaller islands, only a handful of which are inhabited. The Gulf Islands, as they are called, have all the natural beauty typical of the Pacific Northwest, and a much more relaxed pace of life than the big cities. [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…

Absinthe

The tale of the Green Fairy

Author’s Note: This article was updated on April 30, 2008 to reflect changes in absinthe’s legal status in the United States.

Picture yourself at the end of the nineteenth century in France. The Bohemian movement is in full swing. Revolutions in art and literature are brewing, technology is advancing rapidly, and more and more people are putting their creative efforts into the expansion of culture. You walk into a Paris café and see someone sitting at a corner table, scribbling or sketching madly, eyes fiery with enthusiasm. More than likely you see on the same table a glass containing a cloudy liquid—absinthe, the legendary “green muse” to which many artists of the day attribute their creative insights. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Robots that Smell

Artificial noses and beyond

While out for a walk in my neighborhood, I caught a whiff of something that instantly made me think of my grandmother’s house. I haven’t experienced that smell—either from its original source or elsewhere—in well over a decade, but the memory of being back at my grandmother’s house was immediate and striking. On the other hand, I can’t really remember or recreate that smell in my mind; either it’s there or it isn’t. I have convenient analog and digital methods of recording images and sounds so that I can see and hear them later, but no way to capture the scent of a dish at a restaurant, a favorite vacation spot, or any other smell that moves me in some way.

I don’t normally think of smelling as being something within the province of machines. I understand, of course, that devices like smoke detectors and breathalyzers perform what amounts to mechanical olfaction of sorts, but I was still sort of surprised to learn that increasingly sophisticated artificial noses are being incorporated into robots and other devices. What intrigues me more than anything is how such sensors might work. How does one go about measuring and quantifying something as broad and seemingly subjective as smell? [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Hikaru Dorodango

Mud balls as art

Children, I have observed, seem to have an innate affinity for dirt. No matter how recently a parent has dressed the child in freshly laundered clothes, no matter how carefully the parent has attempted to keep the child geographically separated from any substance that might soil or stain, it is just not possible to keep a child clean for more than 60 seconds. I use the word “affinity” advisedly, because it implies not merely a liking, a preference, but a chemical attraction. Kids clearly have a talent for finding dirt, but also, dirt finds them. If you’re a parent, you know what I’m talking about. Eventually, having spent a sum equivalent to your monthly grocery budget on moist towelettes, you give up on keeping the child perpetually clean and set a new, lower but potentially reachable standard of not-entirely-covered-with-mud.

Mud, of course, is that particular species of dirt that children seem to find most fascinating (and which apparently finds them fascinating as well). As far as kids are concerned, mud is cool because it’s gooey and squishy and feels neat and adheres very effectively to your sister’s dress when flung from across the yard. Grown-ups find mud icky for exactly the same reasons, and dried mud, well, that’s somehow an even greater insult to cleanliness—it’s just so…unsightly. Among the words not commonly associated with mud are smooth, shiny, and beautiful. But that’s changing now, thanks to the renaissance of a traditional Japanese art form known as dorodango, shiny mud balls (or, more specifically, hikaru dorodango, ultra-glossy mud balls). Parents are now not only actively encouraging their kids to play in the mud, they’re getting their own hands dirty too as they spend hours refining ordinary dirt into elegant sculptures. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Cow Sharing

Getting the milk for free

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

Humans have been raising cows and drinking their milk for thousands of years, and for most of that time there was only one form that the milk came in: straight from the cow. Different cultures developed ways of transforming that milk into other foods, from yogurt to cheese to butter, but the original liquid stayed the same.

However, when you visit an average supermarket in Europe or North America these days, you are faced with a plethora of choices in the milk aisle. You can have your milk homogenized, that is with the butterfat distributed throughout the milk, or you can buy only the cream skimmed from the top. You can have it in a low-fat or high-fat form, and you can buy it with part of the lactose removed for those who are lactose-intolerant. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Phenomenology

The science of experience

About halfway through college, I decided I was going to major in philosophy. I was one of only four or five philosophy majors in my class, and most of my friends simply couldn’t comprehend why I chose such a field. For one thing, philosophy was obviously the most boring subject in the world, and for another, there didn’t seem to be anything you could do with a degree in philosophy. My classmates would say things like, “I’m majoring in psychology, which means I can become a psychologist. I can have an office and an ad in the yellow pages and people will pay to come talk to me. But there aren’t any philosophers in the yellow pages—look it up. How do you expect to earn a living as a philosopher?” I had no good answer to that question. I didn’t think I wanted to teach philosophy, which is the usual way philosophers make money. But I wasn’t worried about long-term career options or marketability. All I knew was that of all the subjects I’d studied in the past two years, philosophy was the only one that interested me enough to take seriously. It seemed important in a way that, say, history or even science did not—it was a search for answers to the Big Questions: Is there a God? What is the nature of existence? What does it mean to be human? How do we determine right and wrong? I couldn’t imagine wasting my time on lesser questions.

It was not long, of course, before we began talking about Descartes, who in the early 17th century famously said, “I think, therefore I am.” This was not an idle comment; Descartes was looking for a starting point for his philosophical inquiries, some basic principle that, no matter what, could not be doubted. He decided to start by tossing out any belief that could conceivably—even under the unlikeliest conditions—be doubted. For Descartes, it was impossible to doubt his own existence. One could be mistaken about the interpretation of sensory data, but not, he felt, about the experience of thinking. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Tactile Dome

Getting the feel of the Exploratorium

San Francisco’s Exploratorium is an immense (and immensely popular) hands-on science museum. Exhibits cover the usual range of subjects—electricity, physics, optics, biology, and so on—but with a degree of interactive friendliness that’s rare even in the best science museums (and I’ve seen quite a few). Almost everything is designed to be touched, played with, and experimented on—even by young children, whose destructive impulses know no bounds.

Although I had been to the Exploratorium a number of times, there was one exhibit I’d never experienced but always been curious about: something called the Tactile Dome. This is an exhibit for which you must make an advance reservation (and pay extra), and I had never had the foresight to call ahead before visiting the museum to see if there was an open slot. On a visit last summer, when I went to purchase my ticket, I happened to notice a sign saying there were openings at the dome that afternoon. I immediately signed up—after listening to a short speech on all the medical and psychological conditions that would preclude a safe visit and consenting to the non-refundability of the ticket. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Silent Retreats

A different way of listening

In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, one of the main characters is an alien named Ford Prefect from a planet near Betelgeuse. Although he looks, talks, and acts more or less human, there are many things about earthlings that puzzle him, such as the fact that they seem to talk all the time—even if only to repeat the obvious. Over the course of several months, he comes up with a number of theories for this behavior, one of which I found particularly insightful: “If human beings don’t keep exercising their lips, he thought, their brains start working” (p. 49). I’ve frequently noticed, on the one hand, that many people like to surround themselves with sound all the time (making their own if all else fails); and on the other hand, that contemplation is a foreign and uncomfortable concept to most of us. An increasingly popular way of overcoming the sound habit, at least briefly, is to go on a silent retreat.

All Action and No Talk
The idea of a silent retreat is simple: you go somewhere relatively quiet and don’t talk—for a day, a few days, or even longer. Silent retreats usually involve a group of people, so the significant part is not so much that you yourself aren’t speaking but that others aren’t speaking to you. In addition, most other artificial sounds—radio, TV, music, and so on—are avoided, so that for the most part, participants don’t hear any words for long periods of time. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Saturna Island

Less is more (interesting)

I have a special fondness for contradiction—or more accurately, contrariety—the apparent not-going-together of things I like or believe equally. Read enough of these articles and the theme of paradox will be quite evident. For example, I love living in the city, and can’t imagine being without the energy, resources, and constant stimulation it provides. But I could say with equal conviction that I’m happiest when I’m far away from people, noise, and chaos, immersed in the solitude of nature. As a result, when planning a vacation, I’m never quite sure whether I want to “get away from it all” or experience the novelty and adventure of another urban area. Las Vegas, New York, and Paris are among my favorite places to visit; on the other hand, I also enjoy a meditative retreat, a long weekend in the desert, or a lazy trip through the countryside of Provence. But my very favorite place to go for peace and quiet is Saturna Island.

Just Across the Strait
Perhaps I should begin with a quick geography lesson. British Columbia is Canada’s westernmost province. Its largest city, Vancouver (where I lived for three years), is on the Pacific coast, just a few hours’ drive north of Seattle. Not far off the coast—about an hour and a half by ferry—is Vancouver Island, an immense piece of land with an area about the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined. On Vancouver Island you’ll find Victoria, the capital city of British Columbia, and about three-quarters of a million people. The stretch of ocean between the mainland and Vancouver Island is known as the Georgia Strait, and scattered along the 300-mile (483km) length of the strait are hundreds of smaller islands, only a handful of which are inhabited. The Gulf Islands, as they are called, have all the natural beauty typical of the Pacific Northwest, and a much more relaxed pace of life than the big cities. [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…

Absinthe

The tale of the Green Fairy

Author’s Note: This article was updated on April 30, 2008 to reflect changes in absinthe’s legal status in the United States.

Picture yourself at the end of the nineteenth century in France. The Bohemian movement is in full swing. Revolutions in art and literature are brewing, technology is advancing rapidly, and more and more people are putting their creative efforts into the expansion of culture. You walk into a Paris café and see someone sitting at a corner table, scribbling or sketching madly, eyes fiery with enthusiasm. More than likely you see on the same table a glass containing a cloudy liquid—absinthe, the legendary “green muse” to which many artists of the day attribute their creative insights. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Robots that Smell

Artificial noses and beyond

While out for a walk in my neighborhood, I caught a whiff of something that instantly made me think of my grandmother’s house. I haven’t experienced that smell—either from its original source or elsewhere—in well over a decade, but the memory of being back at my grandmother’s house was immediate and striking. On the other hand, I can’t really remember or recreate that smell in my mind; either it’s there or it isn’t. I have convenient analog and digital methods of recording images and sounds so that I can see and hear them later, but no way to capture the scent of a dish at a restaurant, a favorite vacation spot, or any other smell that moves me in some way.

I don’t normally think of smelling as being something within the province of machines. I understand, of course, that devices like smoke detectors and breathalyzers perform what amounts to mechanical olfaction of sorts, but I was still sort of surprised to learn that increasingly sophisticated artificial noses are being incorporated into robots and other devices. What intrigues me more than anything is how such sensors might work. How does one go about measuring and quantifying something as broad and seemingly subjective as smell? [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Hikaru Dorodango

Mud balls as art

Children, I have observed, seem to have an innate affinity for dirt. No matter how recently a parent has dressed the child in freshly laundered clothes, no matter how carefully the parent has attempted to keep the child geographically separated from any substance that might soil or stain, it is just not possible to keep a child clean for more than 60 seconds. I use the word “affinity” advisedly, because it implies not merely a liking, a preference, but a chemical attraction. Kids clearly have a talent for finding dirt, but also, dirt finds them. If you’re a parent, you know what I’m talking about. Eventually, having spent a sum equivalent to your monthly grocery budget on moist towelettes, you give up on keeping the child perpetually clean and set a new, lower but potentially reachable standard of not-entirely-covered-with-mud.

Mud, of course, is that particular species of dirt that children seem to find most fascinating (and which apparently finds them fascinating as well). As far as kids are concerned, mud is cool because it’s gooey and squishy and feels neat and adheres very effectively to your sister’s dress when flung from across the yard. Grown-ups find mud icky for exactly the same reasons, and dried mud, well, that’s somehow an even greater insult to cleanliness—it’s just so…unsightly. Among the words not commonly associated with mud are smooth, shiny, and beautiful. But that’s changing now, thanks to the renaissance of a traditional Japanese art form known as dorodango, shiny mud balls (or, more specifically, hikaru dorodango, ultra-glossy mud balls). Parents are now not only actively encouraging their kids to play in the mud, they’re getting their own hands dirty too as they spend hours refining ordinary dirt into elegant sculptures. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Cow Sharing

Getting the milk for free

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

Humans have been raising cows and drinking their milk for thousands of years, and for most of that time there was only one form that the milk came in: straight from the cow. Different cultures developed ways of transforming that milk into other foods, from yogurt to cheese to butter, but the original liquid stayed the same.

However, when you visit an average supermarket in Europe or North America these days, you are faced with a plethora of choices in the milk aisle. You can have your milk homogenized, that is with the butterfat distributed throughout the milk, or you can buy only the cream skimmed from the top. You can have it in a low-fat or high-fat form, and you can buy it with part of the lactose removed for those who are lactose-intolerant. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Phenomenology

The science of experience

About halfway through college, I decided I was going to major in philosophy. I was one of only four or five philosophy majors in my class, and most of my friends simply couldn’t comprehend why I chose such a field. For one thing, philosophy was obviously the most boring subject in the world, and for another, there didn’t seem to be anything you could do with a degree in philosophy. My classmates would say things like, “I’m majoring in psychology, which means I can become a psychologist. I can have an office and an ad in the yellow pages and people will pay to come talk to me. But there aren’t any philosophers in the yellow pages—look it up. How do you expect to earn a living as a philosopher?” I had no good answer to that question. I didn’t think I wanted to teach philosophy, which is the usual way philosophers make money. But I wasn’t worried about long-term career options or marketability. All I knew was that of all the subjects I’d studied in the past two years, philosophy was the only one that interested me enough to take seriously. It seemed important in a way that, say, history or even science did not—it was a search for answers to the Big Questions: Is there a God? What is the nature of existence? What does it mean to be human? How do we determine right and wrong? I couldn’t imagine wasting my time on lesser questions.

It was not long, of course, before we began talking about Descartes, who in the early 17th century famously said, “I think, therefore I am.” This was not an idle comment; Descartes was looking for a starting point for his philosophical inquiries, some basic principle that, no matter what, could not be doubted. He decided to start by tossing out any belief that could conceivably—even under the unlikeliest conditions—be doubted. For Descartes, it was impossible to doubt his own existence. One could be mistaken about the interpretation of sensory data, but not, he felt, about the experience of thinking. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Tactile Dome

Getting the feel of the Exploratorium

San Francisco’s Exploratorium is an immense (and immensely popular) hands-on science museum. Exhibits cover the usual range of subjects—electricity, physics, optics, biology, and so on—but with a degree of interactive friendliness that’s rare even in the best science museums (and I’ve seen quite a few). Almost everything is designed to be touched, played with, and experimented on—even by young children, whose destructive impulses know no bounds.

Although I had been to the Exploratorium a number of times, there was one exhibit I’d never experienced but always been curious about: something called the Tactile Dome. This is an exhibit for which you must make an advance reservation (and pay extra), and I had never had the foresight to call ahead before visiting the museum to see if there was an open slot. On a visit last summer, when I went to purchase my ticket, I happened to notice a sign saying there were openings at the dome that afternoon. I immediately signed up—after listening to a short speech on all the medical and psychological conditions that would preclude a safe visit and consenting to the non-refundability of the ticket. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Silent Retreats

A different way of listening

In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, one of the main characters is an alien named Ford Prefect from a planet near Betelgeuse. Although he looks, talks, and acts more or less human, there are many things about earthlings that puzzle him, such as the fact that they seem to talk all the time—even if only to repeat the obvious. Over the course of several months, he comes up with a number of theories for this behavior, one of which I found particularly insightful: “If human beings don’t keep exercising their lips, he thought, their brains start working” (p. 49). I’ve frequently noticed, on the one hand, that many people like to surround themselves with sound all the time (making their own if all else fails); and on the other hand, that contemplation is a foreign and uncomfortable concept to most of us. An increasingly popular way of overcoming the sound habit, at least briefly, is to go on a silent retreat.

All Action and No Talk
The idea of a silent retreat is simple: you go somewhere relatively quiet and don’t talk—for a day, a few days, or even longer. Silent retreats usually involve a group of people, so the significant part is not so much that you yourself aren’t speaking but that others aren’t speaking to you. In addition, most other artificial sounds—radio, TV, music, and so on—are avoided, so that for the most part, participants don’t hear any words for long periods of time. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Saturna Island

Less is more (interesting)

I have a special fondness for contradiction—or more accurately, contrariety—the apparent not-going-together of things I like or believe equally. Read enough of these articles and the theme of paradox will be quite evident. For example, I love living in the city, and can’t imagine being without the energy, resources, and constant stimulation it provides. But I could say with equal conviction that I’m happiest when I’m far away from people, noise, and chaos, immersed in the solitude of nature. As a result, when planning a vacation, I’m never quite sure whether I want to “get away from it all” or experience the novelty and adventure of another urban area. Las Vegas, New York, and Paris are among my favorite places to visit; on the other hand, I also enjoy a meditative retreat, a long weekend in the desert, or a lazy trip through the countryside of Provence. But my very favorite place to go for peace and quiet is Saturna Island.

Just Across the Strait
Perhaps I should begin with a quick geography lesson. British Columbia is Canada’s westernmost province. Its largest city, Vancouver (where I lived for three years), is on the Pacific coast, just a few hours’ drive north of Seattle. Not far off the coast—about an hour and a half by ferry—is Vancouver Island, an immense piece of land with an area about the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined. On Vancouver Island you’ll find Victoria, the capital city of British Columbia, and about three-quarters of a million people. The stretch of ocean between the mainland and Vancouver Island is known as the Georgia Strait, and scattered along the 300-mile (483km) length of the strait are hundreds of smaller islands, only a handful of which are inhabited. The Gulf Islands, as they are called, have all the natural beauty typical of the Pacific Northwest, and a much more relaxed pace of life than the big cities. [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…

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…

Hikaru Dorodango

Mud balls as art

Children, I have observed, seem to have an innate affinity for dirt. No matter how recently a parent has dressed the child in freshly laundered clothes, no matter how carefully the parent has attempted to keep the child geographically separated from any substance that might soil or stain, it is just not possible to keep a child clean for more than 60 seconds. I use the word “affinity” advisedly, because it implies not merely a liking, a preference, but a chemical attraction. Kids clearly have a talent for finding dirt, but also, dirt finds them. If you’re a parent, you know what I’m talking about. Eventually, having spent a sum equivalent to your monthly grocery budget on moist towelettes, you give up on keeping the child perpetually clean and set a new, lower but potentially reachable standard of not-entirely-covered-with-mud.

Mud, of course, is that particular species of dirt that children seem to find most fascinating (and which apparently finds them fascinating as well). As far as kids are concerned, mud is cool because it’s gooey and squishy and feels neat and adheres very effectively to your sister’s dress when flung from across the yard. Grown-ups find mud icky for exactly the same reasons, and dried mud, well, that’s somehow an even greater insult to cleanliness—it’s just so…unsightly. Among the words not commonly associated with mud are smooth, shiny, and beautiful. But that’s changing now, thanks to the renaissance of a traditional Japanese art form known as dorodango, shiny mud balls (or, more specifically, hikaru dorodango, ultra-glossy mud balls). Parents are now not only actively encouraging their kids to play in the mud, they’re getting their own hands dirty too as they spend hours refining ordinary dirt into elegant sculptures. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Cow Sharing

Getting the milk for free

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

Humans have been raising cows and drinking their milk for thousands of years, and for most of that time there was only one form that the milk came in: straight from the cow. Different cultures developed ways of transforming that milk into other foods, from yogurt to cheese to butter, but the original liquid stayed the same.

However, when you visit an average supermarket in Europe or North America these days, you are faced with a plethora of choices in the milk aisle. You can have your milk homogenized, that is with the butterfat distributed throughout the milk, or you can buy only the cream skimmed from the top. You can have it in a low-fat or high-fat form, and you can buy it with part of the lactose removed for those who are lactose-intolerant. [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…

Absinthe

The tale of the Green Fairy

Author’s Note: This article was updated on April 30, 2008 to reflect changes in absinthe’s legal status in the United States.

Picture yourself at the end of the nineteenth century in France. The Bohemian movement is in full swing. Revolutions in art and literature are brewing, technology is advancing rapidly, and more and more people are putting their creative efforts into the expansion of culture. You walk into a Paris café and see someone sitting at a corner table, scribbling or sketching madly, eyes fiery with enthusiasm. More than likely you see on the same table a glass containing a cloudy liquid—absinthe, the legendary “green muse” to which many artists of the day attribute their creative insights. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Robots that Smell

Artificial noses and beyond

While out for a walk in my neighborhood, I caught a whiff of something that instantly made me think of my grandmother’s house. I haven’t experienced that smell—either from its original source or elsewhere—in well over a decade, but the memory of being back at my grandmother’s house was immediate and striking. On the other hand, I can’t really remember or recreate that smell in my mind; either it’s there or it isn’t. I have convenient analog and digital methods of recording images and sounds so that I can see and hear them later, but no way to capture the scent of a dish at a restaurant, a favorite vacation spot, or any other smell that moves me in some way.

I don’t normally think of smelling as being something within the province of machines. I understand, of course, that devices like smoke detectors and breathalyzers perform what amounts to mechanical olfaction of sorts, but I was still sort of surprised to learn that increasingly sophisticated artificial noses are being incorporated into robots and other devices. What intrigues me more than anything is how such sensors might work. How does one go about measuring and quantifying something as broad and seemingly subjective as smell? [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Phenomenology

The science of experience

About halfway through college, I decided I was going to major in philosophy. I was one of only four or five philosophy majors in my class, and most of my friends simply couldn’t comprehend why I chose such a field. For one thing, philosophy was obviously the most boring subject in the world, and for another, there didn’t seem to be anything you could do with a degree in philosophy. My classmates would say things like, “I’m majoring in psychology, which means I can become a psychologist. I can have an office and an ad in the yellow pages and people will pay to come talk to me. But there aren’t any philosophers in the yellow pages—look it up. How do you expect to earn a living as a philosopher?” I had no good answer to that question. I didn’t think I wanted to teach philosophy, which is the usual way philosophers make money. But I wasn’t worried about long-term career options or marketability. All I knew was that of all the subjects I’d studied in the past two years, philosophy was the only one that interested me enough to take seriously. It seemed important in a way that, say, history or even science did not—it was a search for answers to the Big Questions: Is there a God? What is the nature of existence? What does it mean to be human? How do we determine right and wrong? I couldn’t imagine wasting my time on lesser questions.

It was not long, of course, before we began talking about Descartes, who in the early 17th century famously said, “I think, therefore I am.” This was not an idle comment; Descartes was looking for a starting point for his philosophical inquiries, some basic principle that, no matter what, could not be doubted. He decided to start by tossing out any belief that could conceivably—even under the unlikeliest conditions—be doubted. For Descartes, it was impossible to doubt his own existence. One could be mistaken about the interpretation of sensory data, but not, he felt, about the experience of thinking. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Tactile Dome

Getting the feel of the Exploratorium

San Francisco’s Exploratorium is an immense (and immensely popular) hands-on science museum. Exhibits cover the usual range of subjects—electricity, physics, optics, biology, and so on—but with a degree of interactive friendliness that’s rare even in the best science museums (and I’ve seen quite a few). Almost everything is designed to be touched, played with, and experimented on—even by young children, whose destructive impulses know no bounds.

Although I had been to the Exploratorium a number of times, there was one exhibit I’d never experienced but always been curious about: something called the Tactile Dome. This is an exhibit for which you must make an advance reservation (and pay extra), and I had never had the foresight to call ahead before visiting the museum to see if there was an open slot. On a visit last summer, when I went to purchase my ticket, I happened to notice a sign saying there were openings at the dome that afternoon. I immediately signed up—after listening to a short speech on all the medical and psychological conditions that would preclude a safe visit and consenting to the non-refundability of the ticket. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Silent Retreats

A different way of listening

In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, one of the main characters is an alien named Ford Prefect from a planet near Betelgeuse. Although he looks, talks, and acts more or less human, there are many things about earthlings that puzzle him, such as the fact that they seem to talk all the time—even if only to repeat the obvious. Over the course of several months, he comes up with a number of theories for this behavior, one of which I found particularly insightful: “If human beings don’t keep exercising their lips, he thought, their brains start working” (p. 49). I’ve frequently noticed, on the one hand, that many people like to surround themselves with sound all the time (making their own if all else fails); and on the other hand, that contemplation is a foreign and uncomfortable concept to most of us. An increasingly popular way of overcoming the sound habit, at least briefly, is to go on a silent retreat.

All Action and No Talk
The idea of a silent retreat is simple: you go somewhere relatively quiet and don’t talk—for a day, a few days, or even longer. Silent retreats usually involve a group of people, so the significant part is not so much that you yourself aren’t speaking but that others aren’t speaking to you. In addition, most other artificial sounds—radio, TV, music, and so on—are avoided, so that for the most part, participants don’t hear any words for long periods of time. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Saturna Island

Less is more (interesting)

I have a special fondness for contradiction—or more accurately, contrariety—the apparent not-going-together of things I like or believe equally. Read enough of these articles and the theme of paradox will be quite evident. For example, I love living in the city, and can’t imagine being without the energy, resources, and constant stimulation it provides. But I could say with equal conviction that I’m happiest when I’m far away from people, noise, and chaos, immersed in the solitude of nature. As a result, when planning a vacation, I’m never quite sure whether I want to “get away from it all” or experience the novelty and adventure of another urban area. Las Vegas, New York, and Paris are among my favorite places to visit; on the other hand, I also enjoy a meditative retreat, a long weekend in the desert, or a lazy trip through the countryside of Provence. But my very favorite place to go for peace and quiet is Saturna Island.

Just Across the Strait
Perhaps I should begin with a quick geography lesson. British Columbia is Canada’s westernmost province. Its largest city, Vancouver (where I lived for three years), is on the Pacific coast, just a few hours’ drive north of Seattle. Not far off the coast—about an hour and a half by ferry—is Vancouver Island, an immense piece of land with an area about the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined. On Vancouver Island you’ll find Victoria, the capital city of British Columbia, and about three-quarters of a million people. The stretch of ocean between the mainland and Vancouver Island is known as the Georgia Strait, and scattered along the 300-mile (483km) length of the strait are hundreds of smaller islands, only a handful of which are inhabited. The Gulf Islands, as they are called, have all the natural beauty typical of the Pacific Northwest, and a much more relaxed pace of life than the big cities. [Article Continues…]

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