From the archives…

Winchester Mystery House

The building project of a lifetime

San Jose, California—about an hour’s drive south of San Francisco—is the unofficial center of Silicon Valley. Lots of high-tech companies are based in or near San Jose, and of the dozens of times I’ve been there, all but one or two were for a technology-related conference of one sort or another. It’s an attractive small city with some excellent museums, parks, and restaurants. But San Jose’s biggest tourist attraction was built long before computers made their mark on the area. About five miles (8km) from downtown, the Winchester Mystery House draws huge crowds almost every day of the year for a simple walking tour of what may be the country’s strangest residential building.

Everyone in the Bay Area seems to know about the Winchester House, to the extent that billboards advertising the attraction don’t give any information other than its name. When I first moved to northern California several years ago, these signs puzzled me. Even after reading a brochure about the house, I didn’t quite grasp what it was all about until I visited for myself. The Winchester Mystery House is undeniably interesting, though whether it lives up to its hype is another question. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Neuschwanstein Castle

King Ludwig II’s tribute to Wagner

Before visiting Germany a few years ago, I didn’t know very much about German history or culture, and didn’t really care to. I had always had a warm place in my heart for France, and felt my Gallic tastes were fundamentally at odds with what little I had grasped of life in Germany. As I saw things, the French language was smoother and more mellifluous than German; the French favored wine (as I do) where Germans were more fond of beer; the French countryside was organic and endearingly unkempt while rural Germany was spotless and well-manicured, and so on. In other words, Germany was undoubtedly nice enough, but just not my style.

My wife, however, has more overt German roots (even her name, Morgen, is spelled like the German word for morning). She had spent some time in Germany while in high school, spoke German well, and had the same sort of idealized fondness for Germany that I had for France. So in the interest of fostering marital harmony, we humored each other on our first trip to Europe together. She agreed to spend some time in Provence, and I agreed to spend some time in Bavaria. Needless to say, this was not a hardship for either of us. We ate and drank well in both countries and collected plenty of interesting stories. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

One-Log House

Northern California’s famous redwood attraction

I’ve always wondered about the expression “famous for being famous.” It seems to denote someone or something with no intrinsic appeal but with a high level of self-replicating buzz or hype. I can think of examples of famous people and things that seemingly don’t deserve to be famous, but what has always puzzled me is how that buzz about nothing gets started. In other words, how could I become famous for being famous? If it’s true that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, maybe it would be fun to be famous for being famous. Not “Joe Kissell the famous author” or even “Joe Kissell the famous curator of Interesting Things” but just “Joe Kissell the Famous.” Sure, all things being equal, I’d prefer to be known as smart and talented, but notoriety itself can be useful.

One time-tested technique for building up unearned fame is the self-fulfilling prophecy. If you declare something to be the case, loudly enough and persistently enough, you may set in motion a chain reaction that will eventually make it true. This phenomenon is of course well-known in California, even in the quiet rural areas far from the machinery of Hollywood fantasy. A case in point: the Famous One-Log House of Garberville, California. No one can say how famous it is, or for what reasons, or among what group of people, but undoubtedly that one word on the sign has convinced hundreds of visitors to pull off the road and have a look rather than just zipping by. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Fasting

There’s more to not eating than you think

Because of my abiding interests in food, cooking, and unusual stories, I was excited to discover the books of Margaret Visser. Visser achieved literary fame for her books on the culture of eating: Much Depends on Dinner and The Rituals of Dinner. But the first book of hers I read was The Way We Are, a collection of short essays on all sorts of interesting things, from the unexpected origins of words to the stories behind everyday customs and cultural artifacts—each one backed by a solid bibliography. Hmmmm, a series of short essays on interesting things. What a concept! Although I did not deliberately try to emulate Visser’s M.O. on this site, it certainly was an implicit inspiration.

One of Visser’s topics in particular caught my attention: fasting. On a few rare occasions I had fasted for a day at a time, but Visser was talking about extended fasts—those lasting more than a few days. According to Visser and other sources I consulted, an extended fast has some fascinating characteristics I had never contemplated. For one thing, hunger is supposed to disappear after the first three or four days. The body adapts to the absence of intake and more or less goes about its business without complaining. Intriguingly, the mind purportedly becomes more alert, less sleep is needed, and thinking becomes clearer. On the downside (or perhaps not, depending on your point of view), sexual energy and desire diminish. Accumulated toxins are also released, which can be healthy for the body’s organs but has a side effect of significant body odor and bad breath. All this continues for anywhere from three to six weeks, depending on a variety of factors including the size of your body and overall health. At that point, hunger returns, signaling that you must eat soon in order to survive. Ignore this sensation, and your muscles, bones, and organs will rapidly deteriorate, leading to starvation. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Benedictine Oblates

Becoming a modern monk

Guest Article by Sheri Hostetler

Thanks to Kathleen Norris, being a Benedictine oblate is almost hip these days. Norris is the author of the critically received books Dakota: A Spiritual Geography and The Cloister Walk. Both tell the story of a literary New Yorker who moved to the Great Plains and found a spiritual life at—of all places—a Benedictine monastery. More than any other person since Thomas Merton, Norris has helped rekindle interest in monastic spirituality among the “thinking crowd.”

While I’d like to think that I became a Benedictine oblate before reading Norris (somehow I think it is morally superior to choose a path before it becomes popular), the truth is that her ruminations on the relevancy of Benedictine spirituality for contemporary life were formative in my own choice. I became an oblate of a small Benedictine community in Oakland, California, in 1999. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

T'ai Chi Ch'uan

The meditative martial art

There’s nothing like a good action film, especially if it involves martial arts. Explosions and chases are all well and good, but I like kung fu better. I’ll eagerly watch Jackie Chan, Chow Yun Fat, or even Keanu Reeves give the bad guys a whomping using no weapons other than physical skill and a sharp mind. In the real world, though, I find the best kung fu not in the flashy, Hollywood-friendly jumps and kicks, but in a discipline your grandmother may well practice: the slow, gentle movements of a martial art called t’ai chi ch’uan.

For a westerner, the first challenge in learning about a Chinese martial art is figuring out how to pronounce it. There are several systems for representing Chinese sounds using the Roman alphabet. These varying transliterations have led to numerous spellings (“tai chi chuan,” “t’ai chi ch’uan,” “taijiquan,” etc.) and pronunciations. I’ll leave the details for another article, but if you want to avoid ambiguity it’s best to use the pronunciation “tai ji,” because the chi in “t’ai chi” is not at all the same thing as ch’i (or qi), a Chinese word usually translated as “internal energy.” [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Charles Atlas Dynamic-Tension Fitness Course

Isometric blast from the past

I’m not what you’d call a “fitness freak.” I’ve spent enough time in gyms to know how the machines work and experience the sensation of building up a sweat, and I like to do t’ai chi. I also live on a San Francisco hill, so I get an aerobic jolt just walking home from the subway. But working out for its own sake is not really my idea of a good time. My disenfranchisement with exercise goes way back. All throughout school, I was the kid who got picked on in phys. ed. classes—the last one chosen for teams, the slowest in races, the kid who couldn’t do a chin-up if his life depended on it. The shared trauma of phys. ed. embarrassments from high school strengthened my bond with my wife. When we were first dating, I asked her how she felt about exercise, and she replied, “My motto is: ‘no pain, no pain.’” A woman after my own heart.

A few years ago I stumbled across an ad that made me laugh: it was one of those Charles Atlas comic-book ads from the 1930s. You know the basic idea: the skinny 97-pound weakling gets sand kicked in his face at the beach, but he can’t stand up to the bully so he loses the girl. Then he sends for Mr. Atlas’s program and one frame later, he’s admiring his new body in the mirror. He goes back to the beach, decks the bully, and gets the girl. The ad then goes on to show a photo of a smiling Charles Atlas with the caption “The World’s Most Perfectly Developed Man.” The reason I laughed at the ad was not just that it reflected a long-forgotten advertising style or that Atlas looked goofy in his leopard-skin briefs; I laughed because the ad was on a Web site, and after almost 70 years, the program was still being sold. Curiosity got the better of me and I sent in my US$50. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Rise of the Bagel

The hole truth

I love Friday mornings. It used to be that I looked forward to Fridays simply because they were the last work day of the week. Then I began working for an employer with the wonderful tradition of providing free bagels and cream cheese for the entire company every Friday morning. They were good bagels, too. Not only was this a great incentive to get to work on time, it put me in a proper frame of mind to be productive and happy for the rest of the day. Ever since then, I’ve carried this custom with me to other places I’ve worked, and even when “work” means my home office, I make an effort to get a fresh bagel on Friday mornings. It’s just the right thing to do.

A Hole in the Story
There are, by actual count, umpteen bajillion Web sites that proudly recount the history of the bagel—that is to say, a lovely and plausible story that explains everything except the crucial points. The story says that bagels were invented in 1683 by an anonymous Jewish baker in Austria. King Jan Sobieski (a.k.a. King John III) of Poland had just saved Austria from a Turkish invasion, and because of his legendary equestrian skills, bread in the shape of a stirrup (or bügel in German) was seen as an appropriate way to honor him. That’s wonderful and all, but the real mystery, which no one seems to have solved, is who came up with the idea to boil bagels before baking them, which is what gives them their characteristic texture both inside and out. (Depending on who you ask, bagels should be boiled for anywhere from a few seconds to six minutes before baking; in my opinion, longer is better.) Equally mysterious is how cream cheese, and later, smoked salmon, came to be intimately associated with the bagel. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Story of Phineas Gage

Brain damage and personality

In September, 1848, the Rutland & Burlington Railroad was expanding its line across Vermont. In order to keep the tracks as straight as possible, construction workers first had to remove a great deal of stone. The foreman of one group of men undertaking this difficult task was Phineas P. Gage. Twenty-five-year-old Gage was intelligent, kind, and well-liked. He was also quite athletic and agile, and impressed his employers as being exceptionally efficient at his work.

Gage was an expert at removing rock using explosives. The procedure was to drill into the rock, fill the hole halfway with explosive powder, insert a fuse, and then cover the powder with sand. The layer of sand was necessary to direct the force of the blast into the rock, rather than out the top of the hole, and the sand had to be packed down by pounding it with a specially designed iron tamping rod. Gage had a custom-made rod that weighed 13 pounds (5.9kg) and measured 3 1/2 feet (1.1m) long, with a diameter of 1 1/4 inches (3.2cm) at the bottom, tapering to a dull point at the top. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Muffin Tops

Bottomless enjoyment

It’s all about dedication. In the course of my research for Interesting Thing of the Day, I have sometimes gone to great lengths to ensure the accuracy and completeness of the articles I write. If that means drinking absinthe or eating doughnuts or trudging through Paris museums, well, these are the sacrifices a responsible journalist must make. I even enlisted my wife’s assistance to undertake a tedious and grueling muffin-baking experiment, subjecting myself to untold nutritional perils to be sure that you, gentle reader, receive the most reliable information. And indeed, I now feel qualified to hold forth on the culinary mystery of muffin tops.

Do You Know the Muffin, Man?
Muffin tops are, as everyone knows, truly the upper crust of muffindom. Most people prefer the top to the stump—at least when you’re talking about those jumbo-sized, coffee-shop muffins, as opposed to the kind you make from a mix in your kitchen. But this fact suggests several questions. Why is the top so much better? How does one go about making a muffin with the kind of top beloved by Seinfeld partisans? And how can one obtain a high-quality top without wasting a perfectly good but less appealing stump? These were the questions I set out to answer. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Mantle Convection

Currents under the earth’s crust

Many years ago I read an article in which the author jokingly referred to something called the “International Stop Continental Drift Society.” Believe it or not, ISCDS was an actual organization in the early 1980s that produced a tongue-in-cheek newsletter for geologists. If it were still around, I’d join in a second: stopping continental drift, like any number of other futile and pointless endeavors, is a cause I could really get behind. Besides, given the complex subject matter, I’d probably learn a lot more from a humorous article than a dry textbook.

In our family, I’m the science guy; my wife tends more toward arts and literature. But she also took a college class that covered plate tectonics, a subject I knew very little about. It gave me a warm feeling in my heart to hear her excitedly talking about continental drift and what happens when the edge of one tectonic plate dives below another one. That’s the kind of stuff we should find interesting, especially since we get plenty of firsthand experience with seismic activity here in San Francisco. But one topic from Morgen’s class stuck out as being particularly interesting: the theory of mantle convection. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Discovery of Radium

Marie Curie’s miracle cure

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

One of the central paradoxes of scientific research and technological development is that while every new discovery brings previously unknown possibilities to light, these discoveries can also have negative effects that may not be readily apparent. For example, certain medicines may provide exciting new treatment options, but it’s only later that their side effects come to light. One of the most glaring examples of this was the thalidomide scandal in the late 1950s, when thousands of women took this drug to combat morning sickness during pregnancy, and it was later found to cause birth defects. Similarly, in the 19th century, opium was thought of as a cure-all before its highly addictive nature was fully understood.

Along the same lines, Marie Sklodowska Curie’s discovery of the element radium in 1898 at first seemed to lead the way to a variety of novel medical treatments, but as the properties of radioactive materials became better known, radium’s health benefits came to seem more limited. Once added to everything from toothpaste to face cream, radium’s reputation went from cutting edge to dangerous within a few short decades. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Crème Brûlée

Why every kitchen needs a blowtorch

The restaurants of America—especially those of the fast-food variety—have come under attack for, among other things, making portion sizes much too large. This, nutritionists say, is one of the main causes of obesity. But I think the biggest problem with large portions is that they make it that much harder for patrons to leave room for dessert. I believe deeply in dessert, and few things cause me as much grief as arriving at the end of a meal only to discover I’m so full that I couldn’t possibly consider even one wafer-thin mint. A sad state of affairs indeed.

Being the sort of snob I am when it comes to French food, I have a special fondness for dishes—especially desserts—that are decadent, inventive, and spelled with an excessive number of accent marks. I can’t think of any dessert that fits that description better than crème brûlée. All things being equal, I usually prefer desserts that have a high chocolate content, but I do make occasional exceptions. What crème brûlée lacks in chocolate it makes up for in fat, calories, and general impressiveness. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Starlite

The mystery miracle heatproof plastic

In the early 1990s, magazine articles and television shows in Great Britain and the United States ran a series of stories about an incredible new invention: a type of plastic that could withstand virtually any amount of heat. The material’s properties confounded scientists, but even more amazing was that its creator, Maurice Ward, had no academic credentials—he was, in fact, a former hairdresser from North Yorkshire, England. Ward saw a news story about how most of the deaths in an airplane accident had been caused by the toxic fumes from burning plastics. Having spent time working on new formulations for shampoo and conditioner in his home laboratory, he decided to try his hand at concocting a more flame-retardant plastic, and after a series of experiments that ran from 1986 to 1989, he came up with a formula that seemed to be impervious to any sort of heat. His granddaughter suggested that he call the stuff “Starlite.”

That’s Hot
Ward’s initial attempts to interest chemical companies in his new product were entirely unsuccessful; no one took the outrageous claims of this amateur inventor seriously. Then a respectable defense journal published the results of several tests by government agencies. The tests showed, among other things, that a thin piece of Starlite wouldn’t burn even when subjected to temperatures as high as 10,000°C—that’s hotter than the surface of the sun. The material withstood even simulated nuclear blasts and high-powered lasers. That journal article, and others that followed it, began to generate a great deal of interest in Starlite, especially in the defense industry. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Pie Funnels

A piecrust’s best friend

Cherry pie has always been one of my favorite desserts, and this preference was only reinforced by my repeated viewings of the TV series Twin Peaks. A few years ago I had the pleasure of meeting Pat Cokewell, erstwhile owner of the Mar T Cafe (now called Twede’s) in North Bend, Washington. The Mar T achieved fame as the “RR Diner” on Twin Peaks, and it was Pat’s cherry pies that inspired director David Lynch to make the diner (and the pies) a central feature of the show. The cherry pies Pat bakes are indeed unimpeachable (and I’m sure even her peach pies are excellent). After sampling them I decided to teach myself how to bake cherry pies, and while I can’t yet claim to match Pat’s expertise, I’ve done OK.

The Crust of the Matter
The crust, of course, is the trickiest part of the pie to master, and I’ve messed up more than a few. In the course of my pie experiments, I’ve accumulated a pretty thorough collection of pie paraphernalia—a variety of pie pans, weights that are used to hold down a crust when baking it “blind” (without a filling), the special metal guards you put over the edges to keep them from burning, and so on. I considered myself quite well versed in the apparatus of pie-making until my wife came back from a trip to a large kitchen store with a shocking discovery: there was a Pie Thing I didn’t yet have, and indeed had never even heard of. It’s called a pie funnel. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Winchester Mystery House

The building project of a lifetime

San Jose, California—about an hour’s drive south of San Francisco—is the unofficial center of Silicon Valley. Lots of high-tech companies are based in or near San Jose, and of the dozens of times I’ve been there, all but one or two were for a technology-related conference of one sort or another. It’s an attractive small city with some excellent museums, parks, and restaurants. But San Jose’s biggest tourist attraction was built long before computers made their mark on the area. About five miles (8km) from downtown, the Winchester Mystery House draws huge crowds almost every day of the year for a simple walking tour of what may be the country’s strangest residential building.

Everyone in the Bay Area seems to know about the Winchester House, to the extent that billboards advertising the attraction don’t give any information other than its name. When I first moved to northern California several years ago, these signs puzzled me. Even after reading a brochure about the house, I didn’t quite grasp what it was all about until I visited for myself. The Winchester Mystery House is undeniably interesting, though whether it lives up to its hype is another question. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Neuschwanstein Castle

King Ludwig II’s tribute to Wagner

Before visiting Germany a few years ago, I didn’t know very much about German history or culture, and didn’t really care to. I had always had a warm place in my heart for France, and felt my Gallic tastes were fundamentally at odds with what little I had grasped of life in Germany. As I saw things, the French language was smoother and more mellifluous than German; the French favored wine (as I do) where Germans were more fond of beer; the French countryside was organic and endearingly unkempt while rural Germany was spotless and well-manicured, and so on. In other words, Germany was undoubtedly nice enough, but just not my style.

My wife, however, has more overt German roots (even her name, Morgen, is spelled like the German word for morning). She had spent some time in Germany while in high school, spoke German well, and had the same sort of idealized fondness for Germany that I had for France. So in the interest of fostering marital harmony, we humored each other on our first trip to Europe together. She agreed to spend some time in Provence, and I agreed to spend some time in Bavaria. Needless to say, this was not a hardship for either of us. We ate and drank well in both countries and collected plenty of interesting stories. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

One-Log House

Northern California’s famous redwood attraction

I’ve always wondered about the expression “famous for being famous.” It seems to denote someone or something with no intrinsic appeal but with a high level of self-replicating buzz or hype. I can think of examples of famous people and things that seemingly don’t deserve to be famous, but what has always puzzled me is how that buzz about nothing gets started. In other words, how could I become famous for being famous? If it’s true that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, maybe it would be fun to be famous for being famous. Not “Joe Kissell the famous author” or even “Joe Kissell the famous curator of Interesting Things” but just “Joe Kissell the Famous.” Sure, all things being equal, I’d prefer to be known as smart and talented, but notoriety itself can be useful.

One time-tested technique for building up unearned fame is the self-fulfilling prophecy. If you declare something to be the case, loudly enough and persistently enough, you may set in motion a chain reaction that will eventually make it true. This phenomenon is of course well-known in California, even in the quiet rural areas far from the machinery of Hollywood fantasy. A case in point: the Famous One-Log House of Garberville, California. No one can say how famous it is, or for what reasons, or among what group of people, but undoubtedly that one word on the sign has convinced hundreds of visitors to pull off the road and have a look rather than just zipping by. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Fasting

There’s more to not eating than you think

Because of my abiding interests in food, cooking, and unusual stories, I was excited to discover the books of Margaret Visser. Visser achieved literary fame for her books on the culture of eating: Much Depends on Dinner and The Rituals of Dinner. But the first book of hers I read was The Way We Are, a collection of short essays on all sorts of interesting things, from the unexpected origins of words to the stories behind everyday customs and cultural artifacts—each one backed by a solid bibliography. Hmmmm, a series of short essays on interesting things. What a concept! Although I did not deliberately try to emulate Visser’s M.O. on this site, it certainly was an implicit inspiration.

One of Visser’s topics in particular caught my attention: fasting. On a few rare occasions I had fasted for a day at a time, but Visser was talking about extended fasts—those lasting more than a few days. According to Visser and other sources I consulted, an extended fast has some fascinating characteristics I had never contemplated. For one thing, hunger is supposed to disappear after the first three or four days. The body adapts to the absence of intake and more or less goes about its business without complaining. Intriguingly, the mind purportedly becomes more alert, less sleep is needed, and thinking becomes clearer. On the downside (or perhaps not, depending on your point of view), sexual energy and desire diminish. Accumulated toxins are also released, which can be healthy for the body’s organs but has a side effect of significant body odor and bad breath. All this continues for anywhere from three to six weeks, depending on a variety of factors including the size of your body and overall health. At that point, hunger returns, signaling that you must eat soon in order to survive. Ignore this sensation, and your muscles, bones, and organs will rapidly deteriorate, leading to starvation. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Benedictine Oblates

Becoming a modern monk

Guest Article by Sheri Hostetler

Thanks to Kathleen Norris, being a Benedictine oblate is almost hip these days. Norris is the author of the critically received books Dakota: A Spiritual Geography and The Cloister Walk. Both tell the story of a literary New Yorker who moved to the Great Plains and found a spiritual life at—of all places—a Benedictine monastery. More than any other person since Thomas Merton, Norris has helped rekindle interest in monastic spirituality among the “thinking crowd.”

While I’d like to think that I became a Benedictine oblate before reading Norris (somehow I think it is morally superior to choose a path before it becomes popular), the truth is that her ruminations on the relevancy of Benedictine spirituality for contemporary life were formative in my own choice. I became an oblate of a small Benedictine community in Oakland, California, in 1999. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

T'ai Chi Ch'uan

The meditative martial art

There’s nothing like a good action film, especially if it involves martial arts. Explosions and chases are all well and good, but I like kung fu better. I’ll eagerly watch Jackie Chan, Chow Yun Fat, or even Keanu Reeves give the bad guys a whomping using no weapons other than physical skill and a sharp mind. In the real world, though, I find the best kung fu not in the flashy, Hollywood-friendly jumps and kicks, but in a discipline your grandmother may well practice: the slow, gentle movements of a martial art called t’ai chi ch’uan.

For a westerner, the first challenge in learning about a Chinese martial art is figuring out how to pronounce it. There are several systems for representing Chinese sounds using the Roman alphabet. These varying transliterations have led to numerous spellings (“tai chi chuan,” “t’ai chi ch’uan,” “taijiquan,” etc.) and pronunciations. I’ll leave the details for another article, but if you want to avoid ambiguity it’s best to use the pronunciation “tai ji,” because the chi in “t’ai chi” is not at all the same thing as ch’i (or qi), a Chinese word usually translated as “internal energy.” [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Charles Atlas Dynamic-Tension Fitness Course

Isometric blast from the past

I’m not what you’d call a “fitness freak.” I’ve spent enough time in gyms to know how the machines work and experience the sensation of building up a sweat, and I like to do t’ai chi. I also live on a San Francisco hill, so I get an aerobic jolt just walking home from the subway. But working out for its own sake is not really my idea of a good time. My disenfranchisement with exercise goes way back. All throughout school, I was the kid who got picked on in phys. ed. classes—the last one chosen for teams, the slowest in races, the kid who couldn’t do a chin-up if his life depended on it. The shared trauma of phys. ed. embarrassments from high school strengthened my bond with my wife. When we were first dating, I asked her how she felt about exercise, and she replied, “My motto is: ‘no pain, no pain.’” A woman after my own heart.

A few years ago I stumbled across an ad that made me laugh: it was one of those Charles Atlas comic-book ads from the 1930s. You know the basic idea: the skinny 97-pound weakling gets sand kicked in his face at the beach, but he can’t stand up to the bully so he loses the girl. Then he sends for Mr. Atlas’s program and one frame later, he’s admiring his new body in the mirror. He goes back to the beach, decks the bully, and gets the girl. The ad then goes on to show a photo of a smiling Charles Atlas with the caption “The World’s Most Perfectly Developed Man.” The reason I laughed at the ad was not just that it reflected a long-forgotten advertising style or that Atlas looked goofy in his leopard-skin briefs; I laughed because the ad was on a Web site, and after almost 70 years, the program was still being sold. Curiosity got the better of me and I sent in my US$50. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Rise of the Bagel

The hole truth

I love Friday mornings. It used to be that I looked forward to Fridays simply because they were the last work day of the week. Then I began working for an employer with the wonderful tradition of providing free bagels and cream cheese for the entire company every Friday morning. They were good bagels, too. Not only was this a great incentive to get to work on time, it put me in a proper frame of mind to be productive and happy for the rest of the day. Ever since then, I’ve carried this custom with me to other places I’ve worked, and even when “work” means my home office, I make an effort to get a fresh bagel on Friday mornings. It’s just the right thing to do.

A Hole in the Story
There are, by actual count, umpteen bajillion Web sites that proudly recount the history of the bagel—that is to say, a lovely and plausible story that explains everything except the crucial points. The story says that bagels were invented in 1683 by an anonymous Jewish baker in Austria. King Jan Sobieski (a.k.a. King John III) of Poland had just saved Austria from a Turkish invasion, and because of his legendary equestrian skills, bread in the shape of a stirrup (or bügel in German) was seen as an appropriate way to honor him. That’s wonderful and all, but the real mystery, which no one seems to have solved, is who came up with the idea to boil bagels before baking them, which is what gives them their characteristic texture both inside and out. (Depending on who you ask, bagels should be boiled for anywhere from a few seconds to six minutes before baking; in my opinion, longer is better.) Equally mysterious is how cream cheese, and later, smoked salmon, came to be intimately associated with the bagel. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Story of Phineas Gage

Brain damage and personality

In September, 1848, the Rutland & Burlington Railroad was expanding its line across Vermont. In order to keep the tracks as straight as possible, construction workers first had to remove a great deal of stone. The foreman of one group of men undertaking this difficult task was Phineas P. Gage. Twenty-five-year-old Gage was intelligent, kind, and well-liked. He was also quite athletic and agile, and impressed his employers as being exceptionally efficient at his work.

Gage was an expert at removing rock using explosives. The procedure was to drill into the rock, fill the hole halfway with explosive powder, insert a fuse, and then cover the powder with sand. The layer of sand was necessary to direct the force of the blast into the rock, rather than out the top of the hole, and the sand had to be packed down by pounding it with a specially designed iron tamping rod. Gage had a custom-made rod that weighed 13 pounds (5.9kg) and measured 3 1/2 feet (1.1m) long, with a diameter of 1 1/4 inches (3.2cm) at the bottom, tapering to a dull point at the top. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Muffin Tops

Bottomless enjoyment

It’s all about dedication. In the course of my research for Interesting Thing of the Day, I have sometimes gone to great lengths to ensure the accuracy and completeness of the articles I write. If that means drinking absinthe or eating doughnuts or trudging through Paris museums, well, these are the sacrifices a responsible journalist must make. I even enlisted my wife’s assistance to undertake a tedious and grueling muffin-baking experiment, subjecting myself to untold nutritional perils to be sure that you, gentle reader, receive the most reliable information. And indeed, I now feel qualified to hold forth on the culinary mystery of muffin tops.

Do You Know the Muffin, Man?
Muffin tops are, as everyone knows, truly the upper crust of muffindom. Most people prefer the top to the stump—at least when you’re talking about those jumbo-sized, coffee-shop muffins, as opposed to the kind you make from a mix in your kitchen. But this fact suggests several questions. Why is the top so much better? How does one go about making a muffin with the kind of top beloved by Seinfeld partisans? And how can one obtain a high-quality top without wasting a perfectly good but less appealing stump? These were the questions I set out to answer. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Mantle Convection

Currents under the earth’s crust

Many years ago I read an article in which the author jokingly referred to something called the “International Stop Continental Drift Society.” Believe it or not, ISCDS was an actual organization in the early 1980s that produced a tongue-in-cheek newsletter for geologists. If it were still around, I’d join in a second: stopping continental drift, like any number of other futile and pointless endeavors, is a cause I could really get behind. Besides, given the complex subject matter, I’d probably learn a lot more from a humorous article than a dry textbook.

In our family, I’m the science guy; my wife tends more toward arts and literature. But she also took a college class that covered plate tectonics, a subject I knew very little about. It gave me a warm feeling in my heart to hear her excitedly talking about continental drift and what happens when the edge of one tectonic plate dives below another one. That’s the kind of stuff we should find interesting, especially since we get plenty of firsthand experience with seismic activity here in San Francisco. But one topic from Morgen’s class stuck out as being particularly interesting: the theory of mantle convection. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Discovery of Radium

Marie Curie’s miracle cure

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

One of the central paradoxes of scientific research and technological development is that while every new discovery brings previously unknown possibilities to light, these discoveries can also have negative effects that may not be readily apparent. For example, certain medicines may provide exciting new treatment options, but it’s only later that their side effects come to light. One of the most glaring examples of this was the thalidomide scandal in the late 1950s, when thousands of women took this drug to combat morning sickness during pregnancy, and it was later found to cause birth defects. Similarly, in the 19th century, opium was thought of as a cure-all before its highly addictive nature was fully understood.

Along the same lines, Marie Sklodowska Curie’s discovery of the element radium in 1898 at first seemed to lead the way to a variety of novel medical treatments, but as the properties of radioactive materials became better known, radium’s health benefits came to seem more limited. Once added to everything from toothpaste to face cream, radium’s reputation went from cutting edge to dangerous within a few short decades. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Crème Brûlée

Why every kitchen needs a blowtorch

The restaurants of America—especially those of the fast-food variety—have come under attack for, among other things, making portion sizes much too large. This, nutritionists say, is one of the main causes of obesity. But I think the biggest problem with large portions is that they make it that much harder for patrons to leave room for dessert. I believe deeply in dessert, and few things cause me as much grief as arriving at the end of a meal only to discover I’m so full that I couldn’t possibly consider even one wafer-thin mint. A sad state of affairs indeed.

Being the sort of snob I am when it comes to French food, I have a special fondness for dishes—especially desserts—that are decadent, inventive, and spelled with an excessive number of accent marks. I can’t think of any dessert that fits that description better than crème brûlée. All things being equal, I usually prefer desserts that have a high chocolate content, but I do make occasional exceptions. What crème brûlée lacks in chocolate it makes up for in fat, calories, and general impressiveness. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Starlite

The mystery miracle heatproof plastic

In the early 1990s, magazine articles and television shows in Great Britain and the United States ran a series of stories about an incredible new invention: a type of plastic that could withstand virtually any amount of heat. The material’s properties confounded scientists, but even more amazing was that its creator, Maurice Ward, had no academic credentials—he was, in fact, a former hairdresser from North Yorkshire, England. Ward saw a news story about how most of the deaths in an airplane accident had been caused by the toxic fumes from burning plastics. Having spent time working on new formulations for shampoo and conditioner in his home laboratory, he decided to try his hand at concocting a more flame-retardant plastic, and after a series of experiments that ran from 1986 to 1989, he came up with a formula that seemed to be impervious to any sort of heat. His granddaughter suggested that he call the stuff “Starlite.”

That’s Hot
Ward’s initial attempts to interest chemical companies in his new product were entirely unsuccessful; no one took the outrageous claims of this amateur inventor seriously. Then a respectable defense journal published the results of several tests by government agencies. The tests showed, among other things, that a thin piece of Starlite wouldn’t burn even when subjected to temperatures as high as 10,000°C—that’s hotter than the surface of the sun. The material withstood even simulated nuclear blasts and high-powered lasers. That journal article, and others that followed it, began to generate a great deal of interest in Starlite, especially in the defense industry. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Pie Funnels

A piecrust’s best friend

Cherry pie has always been one of my favorite desserts, and this preference was only reinforced by my repeated viewings of the TV series Twin Peaks. A few years ago I had the pleasure of meeting Pat Cokewell, erstwhile owner of the Mar T Cafe (now called Twede’s) in North Bend, Washington. The Mar T achieved fame as the “RR Diner” on Twin Peaks, and it was Pat’s cherry pies that inspired director David Lynch to make the diner (and the pies) a central feature of the show. The cherry pies Pat bakes are indeed unimpeachable (and I’m sure even her peach pies are excellent). After sampling them I decided to teach myself how to bake cherry pies, and while I can’t yet claim to match Pat’s expertise, I’ve done OK.

The Crust of the Matter
The crust, of course, is the trickiest part of the pie to master, and I’ve messed up more than a few. In the course of my pie experiments, I’ve accumulated a pretty thorough collection of pie paraphernalia—a variety of pie pans, weights that are used to hold down a crust when baking it “blind” (without a filling), the special metal guards you put over the edges to keep them from burning, and so on. I considered myself quite well versed in the apparatus of pie-making until my wife came back from a trip to a large kitchen store with a shocking discovery: there was a Pie Thing I didn’t yet have, and indeed had never even heard of. It’s called a pie funnel. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Winchester Mystery House

The building project of a lifetime

San Jose, California—about an hour’s drive south of San Francisco—is the unofficial center of Silicon Valley. Lots of high-tech companies are based in or near San Jose, and of the dozens of times I’ve been there, all but one or two were for a technology-related conference of one sort or another. It’s an attractive small city with some excellent museums, parks, and restaurants. But San Jose’s biggest tourist attraction was built long before computers made their mark on the area. About five miles (8km) from downtown, the Winchester Mystery House draws huge crowds almost every day of the year for a simple walking tour of what may be the country’s strangest residential building.

Everyone in the Bay Area seems to know about the Winchester House, to the extent that billboards advertising the attraction don’t give any information other than its name. When I first moved to northern California several years ago, these signs puzzled me. Even after reading a brochure about the house, I didn’t quite grasp what it was all about until I visited for myself. The Winchester Mystery House is undeniably interesting, though whether it lives up to its hype is another question. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Neuschwanstein Castle

King Ludwig II’s tribute to Wagner

Before visiting Germany a few years ago, I didn’t know very much about German history or culture, and didn’t really care to. I had always had a warm place in my heart for France, and felt my Gallic tastes were fundamentally at odds with what little I had grasped of life in Germany. As I saw things, the French language was smoother and more mellifluous than German; the French favored wine (as I do) where Germans were more fond of beer; the French countryside was organic and endearingly unkempt while rural Germany was spotless and well-manicured, and so on. In other words, Germany was undoubtedly nice enough, but just not my style.

My wife, however, has more overt German roots (even her name, Morgen, is spelled like the German word for morning). She had spent some time in Germany while in high school, spoke German well, and had the same sort of idealized fondness for Germany that I had for France. So in the interest of fostering marital harmony, we humored each other on our first trip to Europe together. She agreed to spend some time in Provence, and I agreed to spend some time in Bavaria. Needless to say, this was not a hardship for either of us. We ate and drank well in both countries and collected plenty of interesting stories. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

One-Log House

Northern California’s famous redwood attraction

I’ve always wondered about the expression “famous for being famous.” It seems to denote someone or something with no intrinsic appeal but with a high level of self-replicating buzz or hype. I can think of examples of famous people and things that seemingly don’t deserve to be famous, but what has always puzzled me is how that buzz about nothing gets started. In other words, how could I become famous for being famous? If it’s true that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, maybe it would be fun to be famous for being famous. Not “Joe Kissell the famous author” or even “Joe Kissell the famous curator of Interesting Things” but just “Joe Kissell the Famous.” Sure, all things being equal, I’d prefer to be known as smart and talented, but notoriety itself can be useful.

One time-tested technique for building up unearned fame is the self-fulfilling prophecy. If you declare something to be the case, loudly enough and persistently enough, you may set in motion a chain reaction that will eventually make it true. This phenomenon is of course well-known in California, even in the quiet rural areas far from the machinery of Hollywood fantasy. A case in point: the Famous One-Log House of Garberville, California. No one can say how famous it is, or for what reasons, or among what group of people, but undoubtedly that one word on the sign has convinced hundreds of visitors to pull off the road and have a look rather than just zipping by. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Fasting

There’s more to not eating than you think

Because of my abiding interests in food, cooking, and unusual stories, I was excited to discover the books of Margaret Visser. Visser achieved literary fame for her books on the culture of eating: Much Depends on Dinner and The Rituals of Dinner. But the first book of hers I read was The Way We Are, a collection of short essays on all sorts of interesting things, from the unexpected origins of words to the stories behind everyday customs and cultural artifacts—each one backed by a solid bibliography. Hmmmm, a series of short essays on interesting things. What a concept! Although I did not deliberately try to emulate Visser’s M.O. on this site, it certainly was an implicit inspiration.

One of Visser’s topics in particular caught my attention: fasting. On a few rare occasions I had fasted for a day at a time, but Visser was talking about extended fasts—those lasting more than a few days. According to Visser and other sources I consulted, an extended fast has some fascinating characteristics I had never contemplated. For one thing, hunger is supposed to disappear after the first three or four days. The body adapts to the absence of intake and more or less goes about its business without complaining. Intriguingly, the mind purportedly becomes more alert, less sleep is needed, and thinking becomes clearer. On the downside (or perhaps not, depending on your point of view), sexual energy and desire diminish. Accumulated toxins are also released, which can be healthy for the body’s organs but has a side effect of significant body odor and bad breath. All this continues for anywhere from three to six weeks, depending on a variety of factors including the size of your body and overall health. At that point, hunger returns, signaling that you must eat soon in order to survive. Ignore this sensation, and your muscles, bones, and organs will rapidly deteriorate, leading to starvation. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Benedictine Oblates

Becoming a modern monk

Guest Article by Sheri Hostetler

Thanks to Kathleen Norris, being a Benedictine oblate is almost hip these days. Norris is the author of the critically received books Dakota: A Spiritual Geography and The Cloister Walk. Both tell the story of a literary New Yorker who moved to the Great Plains and found a spiritual life at—of all places—a Benedictine monastery. More than any other person since Thomas Merton, Norris has helped rekindle interest in monastic spirituality among the “thinking crowd.”

While I’d like to think that I became a Benedictine oblate before reading Norris (somehow I think it is morally superior to choose a path before it becomes popular), the truth is that her ruminations on the relevancy of Benedictine spirituality for contemporary life were formative in my own choice. I became an oblate of a small Benedictine community in Oakland, California, in 1999. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

T'ai Chi Ch'uan

The meditative martial art

There’s nothing like a good action film, especially if it involves martial arts. Explosions and chases are all well and good, but I like kung fu better. I’ll eagerly watch Jackie Chan, Chow Yun Fat, or even Keanu Reeves give the bad guys a whomping using no weapons other than physical skill and a sharp mind. In the real world, though, I find the best kung fu not in the flashy, Hollywood-friendly jumps and kicks, but in a discipline your grandmother may well practice: the slow, gentle movements of a martial art called t’ai chi ch’uan.

For a westerner, the first challenge in learning about a Chinese martial art is figuring out how to pronounce it. There are several systems for representing Chinese sounds using the Roman alphabet. These varying transliterations have led to numerous spellings (“tai chi chuan,” “t’ai chi ch’uan,” “taijiquan,” etc.) and pronunciations. I’ll leave the details for another article, but if you want to avoid ambiguity it’s best to use the pronunciation “tai ji,” because the chi in “t’ai chi” is not at all the same thing as ch’i (or qi), a Chinese word usually translated as “internal energy.” [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Charles Atlas Dynamic-Tension Fitness Course

Isometric blast from the past

I’m not what you’d call a “fitness freak.” I’ve spent enough time in gyms to know how the machines work and experience the sensation of building up a sweat, and I like to do t’ai chi. I also live on a San Francisco hill, so I get an aerobic jolt just walking home from the subway. But working out for its own sake is not really my idea of a good time. My disenfranchisement with exercise goes way back. All throughout school, I was the kid who got picked on in phys. ed. classes—the last one chosen for teams, the slowest in races, the kid who couldn’t do a chin-up if his life depended on it. The shared trauma of phys. ed. embarrassments from high school strengthened my bond with my wife. When we were first dating, I asked her how she felt about exercise, and she replied, “My motto is: ‘no pain, no pain.’” A woman after my own heart.

A few years ago I stumbled across an ad that made me laugh: it was one of those Charles Atlas comic-book ads from the 1930s. You know the basic idea: the skinny 97-pound weakling gets sand kicked in his face at the beach, but he can’t stand up to the bully so he loses the girl. Then he sends for Mr. Atlas’s program and one frame later, he’s admiring his new body in the mirror. He goes back to the beach, decks the bully, and gets the girl. The ad then goes on to show a photo of a smiling Charles Atlas with the caption “The World’s Most Perfectly Developed Man.” The reason I laughed at the ad was not just that it reflected a long-forgotten advertising style or that Atlas looked goofy in his leopard-skin briefs; I laughed because the ad was on a Web site, and after almost 70 years, the program was still being sold. Curiosity got the better of me and I sent in my US$50. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Rise of the Bagel

The hole truth

I love Friday mornings. It used to be that I looked forward to Fridays simply because they were the last work day of the week. Then I began working for an employer with the wonderful tradition of providing free bagels and cream cheese for the entire company every Friday morning. They were good bagels, too. Not only was this a great incentive to get to work on time, it put me in a proper frame of mind to be productive and happy for the rest of the day. Ever since then, I’ve carried this custom with me to other places I’ve worked, and even when “work” means my home office, I make an effort to get a fresh bagel on Friday mornings. It’s just the right thing to do.

A Hole in the Story
There are, by actual count, umpteen bajillion Web sites that proudly recount the history of the bagel—that is to say, a lovely and plausible story that explains everything except the crucial points. The story says that bagels were invented in 1683 by an anonymous Jewish baker in Austria. King Jan Sobieski (a.k.a. King John III) of Poland had just saved Austria from a Turkish invasion, and because of his legendary equestrian skills, bread in the shape of a stirrup (or bügel in German) was seen as an appropriate way to honor him. That’s wonderful and all, but the real mystery, which no one seems to have solved, is who came up with the idea to boil bagels before baking them, which is what gives them their characteristic texture both inside and out. (Depending on who you ask, bagels should be boiled for anywhere from a few seconds to six minutes before baking; in my opinion, longer is better.) Equally mysterious is how cream cheese, and later, smoked salmon, came to be intimately associated with the bagel. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Story of Phineas Gage

Brain damage and personality

In September, 1848, the Rutland & Burlington Railroad was expanding its line across Vermont. In order to keep the tracks as straight as possible, construction workers first had to remove a great deal of stone. The foreman of one group of men undertaking this difficult task was Phineas P. Gage. Twenty-five-year-old Gage was intelligent, kind, and well-liked. He was also quite athletic and agile, and impressed his employers as being exceptionally efficient at his work.

Gage was an expert at removing rock using explosives. The procedure was to drill into the rock, fill the hole halfway with explosive powder, insert a fuse, and then cover the powder with sand. The layer of sand was necessary to direct the force of the blast into the rock, rather than out the top of the hole, and the sand had to be packed down by pounding it with a specially designed iron tamping rod. Gage had a custom-made rod that weighed 13 pounds (5.9kg) and measured 3 1/2 feet (1.1m) long, with a diameter of 1 1/4 inches (3.2cm) at the bottom, tapering to a dull point at the top. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Muffin Tops

Bottomless enjoyment

It’s all about dedication. In the course of my research for Interesting Thing of the Day, I have sometimes gone to great lengths to ensure the accuracy and completeness of the articles I write. If that means drinking absinthe or eating doughnuts or trudging through Paris museums, well, these are the sacrifices a responsible journalist must make. I even enlisted my wife’s assistance to undertake a tedious and grueling muffin-baking experiment, subjecting myself to untold nutritional perils to be sure that you, gentle reader, receive the most reliable information. And indeed, I now feel qualified to hold forth on the culinary mystery of muffin tops.

Do You Know the Muffin, Man?
Muffin tops are, as everyone knows, truly the upper crust of muffindom. Most people prefer the top to the stump—at least when you’re talking about those jumbo-sized, coffee-shop muffins, as opposed to the kind you make from a mix in your kitchen. But this fact suggests several questions. Why is the top so much better? How does one go about making a muffin with the kind of top beloved by Seinfeld partisans? And how can one obtain a high-quality top without wasting a perfectly good but less appealing stump? These were the questions I set out to answer. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Mantle Convection

Currents under the earth’s crust

Many years ago I read an article in which the author jokingly referred to something called the “International Stop Continental Drift Society.” Believe it or not, ISCDS was an actual organization in the early 1980s that produced a tongue-in-cheek newsletter for geologists. If it were still around, I’d join in a second: stopping continental drift, like any number of other futile and pointless endeavors, is a cause I could really get behind. Besides, given the complex subject matter, I’d probably learn a lot more from a humorous article than a dry textbook.

In our family, I’m the science guy; my wife tends more toward arts and literature. But she also took a college class that covered plate tectonics, a subject I knew very little about. It gave me a warm feeling in my heart to hear her excitedly talking about continental drift and what happens when the edge of one tectonic plate dives below another one. That’s the kind of stuff we should find interesting, especially since we get plenty of firsthand experience with seismic activity here in San Francisco. But one topic from Morgen’s class stuck out as being particularly interesting: the theory of mantle convection. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Discovery of Radium

Marie Curie’s miracle cure

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

One of the central paradoxes of scientific research and technological development is that while every new discovery brings previously unknown possibilities to light, these discoveries can also have negative effects that may not be readily apparent. For example, certain medicines may provide exciting new treatment options, but it’s only later that their side effects come to light. One of the most glaring examples of this was the thalidomide scandal in the late 1950s, when thousands of women took this drug to combat morning sickness during pregnancy, and it was later found to cause birth defects. Similarly, in the 19th century, opium was thought of as a cure-all before its highly addictive nature was fully understood.

Along the same lines, Marie Sklodowska Curie’s discovery of the element radium in 1898 at first seemed to lead the way to a variety of novel medical treatments, but as the properties of radioactive materials became better known, radium’s health benefits came to seem more limited. Once added to everything from toothpaste to face cream, radium’s reputation went from cutting edge to dangerous within a few short decades. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Crème Brûlée

Why every kitchen needs a blowtorch

The restaurants of America—especially those of the fast-food variety—have come under attack for, among other things, making portion sizes much too large. This, nutritionists say, is one of the main causes of obesity. But I think the biggest problem with large portions is that they make it that much harder for patrons to leave room for dessert. I believe deeply in dessert, and few things cause me as much grief as arriving at the end of a meal only to discover I’m so full that I couldn’t possibly consider even one wafer-thin mint. A sad state of affairs indeed.

Being the sort of snob I am when it comes to French food, I have a special fondness for dishes—especially desserts—that are decadent, inventive, and spelled with an excessive number of accent marks. I can’t think of any dessert that fits that description better than crème brûlée. All things being equal, I usually prefer desserts that have a high chocolate content, but I do make occasional exceptions. What crème brûlée lacks in chocolate it makes up for in fat, calories, and general impressiveness. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Starlite

The mystery miracle heatproof plastic

In the early 1990s, magazine articles and television shows in Great Britain and the United States ran a series of stories about an incredible new invention: a type of plastic that could withstand virtually any amount of heat. The material’s properties confounded scientists, but even more amazing was that its creator, Maurice Ward, had no academic credentials—he was, in fact, a former hairdresser from North Yorkshire, England. Ward saw a news story about how most of the deaths in an airplane accident had been caused by the toxic fumes from burning plastics. Having spent time working on new formulations for shampoo and conditioner in his home laboratory, he decided to try his hand at concocting a more flame-retardant plastic, and after a series of experiments that ran from 1986 to 1989, he came up with a formula that seemed to be impervious to any sort of heat. His granddaughter suggested that he call the stuff “Starlite.”

That’s Hot
Ward’s initial attempts to interest chemical companies in his new product were entirely unsuccessful; no one took the outrageous claims of this amateur inventor seriously. Then a respectable defense journal published the results of several tests by government agencies. The tests showed, among other things, that a thin piece of Starlite wouldn’t burn even when subjected to temperatures as high as 10,000°C—that’s hotter than the surface of the sun. The material withstood even simulated nuclear blasts and high-powered lasers. That journal article, and others that followed it, began to generate a great deal of interest in Starlite, especially in the defense industry. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Pie Funnels

A piecrust’s best friend

Cherry pie has always been one of my favorite desserts, and this preference was only reinforced by my repeated viewings of the TV series Twin Peaks. A few years ago I had the pleasure of meeting Pat Cokewell, erstwhile owner of the Mar T Cafe (now called Twede’s) in North Bend, Washington. The Mar T achieved fame as the “RR Diner” on Twin Peaks, and it was Pat’s cherry pies that inspired director David Lynch to make the diner (and the pies) a central feature of the show. The cherry pies Pat bakes are indeed unimpeachable (and I’m sure even her peach pies are excellent). After sampling them I decided to teach myself how to bake cherry pies, and while I can’t yet claim to match Pat’s expertise, I’ve done OK.

The Crust of the Matter
The crust, of course, is the trickiest part of the pie to master, and I’ve messed up more than a few. In the course of my pie experiments, I’ve accumulated a pretty thorough collection of pie paraphernalia—a variety of pie pans, weights that are used to hold down a crust when baking it “blind” (without a filling), the special metal guards you put over the edges to keep them from burning, and so on. I considered myself quite well versed in the apparatus of pie-making until my wife came back from a trip to a large kitchen store with a shocking discovery: there was a Pie Thing I didn’t yet have, and indeed had never even heard of. It’s called a pie funnel. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Winchester Mystery House

The building project of a lifetime

San Jose, California—about an hour’s drive south of San Francisco—is the unofficial center of Silicon Valley. Lots of high-tech companies are based in or near San Jose, and of the dozens of times I’ve been there, all but one or two were for a technology-related conference of one sort or another. It’s an attractive small city with some excellent museums, parks, and restaurants. But San Jose’s biggest tourist attraction was built long before computers made their mark on the area. About five miles (8km) from downtown, the Winchester Mystery House draws huge crowds almost every day of the year for a simple walking tour of what may be the country’s strangest residential building.

Everyone in the Bay Area seems to know about the Winchester House, to the extent that billboards advertising the attraction don’t give any information other than its name. When I first moved to northern California several years ago, these signs puzzled me. Even after reading a brochure about the house, I didn’t quite grasp what it was all about until I visited for myself. The Winchester Mystery House is undeniably interesting, though whether it lives up to its hype is another question. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Neuschwanstein Castle

King Ludwig II’s tribute to Wagner

Before visiting Germany a few years ago, I didn’t know very much about German history or culture, and didn’t really care to. I had always had a warm place in my heart for France, and felt my Gallic tastes were fundamentally at odds with what little I had grasped of life in Germany. As I saw things, the French language was smoother and more mellifluous than German; the French favored wine (as I do) where Germans were more fond of beer; the French countryside was organic and endearingly unkempt while rural Germany was spotless and well-manicured, and so on. In other words, Germany was undoubtedly nice enough, but just not my style.

My wife, however, has more overt German roots (even her name, Morgen, is spelled like the German word for morning). She had spent some time in Germany while in high school, spoke German well, and had the same sort of idealized fondness for Germany that I had for France. So in the interest of fostering marital harmony, we humored each other on our first trip to Europe together. She agreed to spend some time in Provence, and I agreed to spend some time in Bavaria. Needless to say, this was not a hardship for either of us. We ate and drank well in both countries and collected plenty of interesting stories. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

One-Log House

Northern California’s famous redwood attraction

I’ve always wondered about the expression “famous for being famous.” It seems to denote someone or something with no intrinsic appeal but with a high level of self-replicating buzz or hype. I can think of examples of famous people and things that seemingly don’t deserve to be famous, but what has always puzzled me is how that buzz about nothing gets started. In other words, how could I become famous for being famous? If it’s true that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, maybe it would be fun to be famous for being famous. Not “Joe Kissell the famous author” or even “Joe Kissell the famous curator of Interesting Things” but just “Joe Kissell the Famous.” Sure, all things being equal, I’d prefer to be known as smart and talented, but notoriety itself can be useful.

One time-tested technique for building up unearned fame is the self-fulfilling prophecy. If you declare something to be the case, loudly enough and persistently enough, you may set in motion a chain reaction that will eventually make it true. This phenomenon is of course well-known in California, even in the quiet rural areas far from the machinery of Hollywood fantasy. A case in point: the Famous One-Log House of Garberville, California. No one can say how famous it is, or for what reasons, or among what group of people, but undoubtedly that one word on the sign has convinced hundreds of visitors to pull off the road and have a look rather than just zipping by. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Fasting

There’s more to not eating than you think

Because of my abiding interests in food, cooking, and unusual stories, I was excited to discover the books of Margaret Visser. Visser achieved literary fame for her books on the culture of eating: Much Depends on Dinner and The Rituals of Dinner. But the first book of hers I read was The Way We Are, a collection of short essays on all sorts of interesting things, from the unexpected origins of words to the stories behind everyday customs and cultural artifacts—each one backed by a solid bibliography. Hmmmm, a series of short essays on interesting things. What a concept! Although I did not deliberately try to emulate Visser’s M.O. on this site, it certainly was an implicit inspiration.

One of Visser’s topics in particular caught my attention: fasting. On a few rare occasions I had fasted for a day at a time, but Visser was talking about extended fasts—those lasting more than a few days. According to Visser and other sources I consulted, an extended fast has some fascinating characteristics I had never contemplated. For one thing, hunger is supposed to disappear after the first three or four days. The body adapts to the absence of intake and more or less goes about its business without complaining. Intriguingly, the mind purportedly becomes more alert, less sleep is needed, and thinking becomes clearer. On the downside (or perhaps not, depending on your point of view), sexual energy and desire diminish. Accumulated toxins are also released, which can be healthy for the body’s organs but has a side effect of significant body odor and bad breath. All this continues for anywhere from three to six weeks, depending on a variety of factors including the size of your body and overall health. At that point, hunger returns, signaling that you must eat soon in order to survive. Ignore this sensation, and your muscles, bones, and organs will rapidly deteriorate, leading to starvation. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Benedictine Oblates

Becoming a modern monk

Guest Article by Sheri Hostetler

Thanks to Kathleen Norris, being a Benedictine oblate is almost hip these days. Norris is the author of the critically received books Dakota: A Spiritual Geography and The Cloister Walk. Both tell the story of a literary New Yorker who moved to the Great Plains and found a spiritual life at—of all places—a Benedictine monastery. More than any other person since Thomas Merton, Norris has helped rekindle interest in monastic spirituality among the “thinking crowd.”

While I’d like to think that I became a Benedictine oblate before reading Norris (somehow I think it is morally superior to choose a path before it becomes popular), the truth is that her ruminations on the relevancy of Benedictine spirituality for contemporary life were formative in my own choice. I became an oblate of a small Benedictine community in Oakland, California, in 1999. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

T'ai Chi Ch'uan

The meditative martial art

There’s nothing like a good action film, especially if it involves martial arts. Explosions and chases are all well and good, but I like kung fu better. I’ll eagerly watch Jackie Chan, Chow Yun Fat, or even Keanu Reeves give the bad guys a whomping using no weapons other than physical skill and a sharp mind. In the real world, though, I find the best kung fu not in the flashy, Hollywood-friendly jumps and kicks, but in a discipline your grandmother may well practice: the slow, gentle movements of a martial art called t’ai chi ch’uan.

For a westerner, the first challenge in learning about a Chinese martial art is figuring out how to pronounce it. There are several systems for representing Chinese sounds using the Roman alphabet. These varying transliterations have led to numerous spellings (“tai chi chuan,” “t’ai chi ch’uan,” “taijiquan,” etc.) and pronunciations. I’ll leave the details for another article, but if you want to avoid ambiguity it’s best to use the pronunciation “tai ji,” because the chi in “t’ai chi” is not at all the same thing as ch’i (or qi), a Chinese word usually translated as “internal energy.” [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Charles Atlas Dynamic-Tension Fitness Course

Isometric blast from the past

I’m not what you’d call a “fitness freak.” I’ve spent enough time in gyms to know how the machines work and experience the sensation of building up a sweat, and I like to do t’ai chi. I also live on a San Francisco hill, so I get an aerobic jolt just walking home from the subway. But working out for its own sake is not really my idea of a good time. My disenfranchisement with exercise goes way back. All throughout school, I was the kid who got picked on in phys. ed. classes—the last one chosen for teams, the slowest in races, the kid who couldn’t do a chin-up if his life depended on it. The shared trauma of phys. ed. embarrassments from high school strengthened my bond with my wife. When we were first dating, I asked her how she felt about exercise, and she replied, “My motto is: ‘no pain, no pain.’” A woman after my own heart.

A few years ago I stumbled across an ad that made me laugh: it was one of those Charles Atlas comic-book ads from the 1930s. You know the basic idea: the skinny 97-pound weakling gets sand kicked in his face at the beach, but he can’t stand up to the bully so he loses the girl. Then he sends for Mr. Atlas’s program and one frame later, he’s admiring his new body in the mirror. He goes back to the beach, decks the bully, and gets the girl. The ad then goes on to show a photo of a smiling Charles Atlas with the caption “The World’s Most Perfectly Developed Man.” The reason I laughed at the ad was not just that it reflected a long-forgotten advertising style or that Atlas looked goofy in his leopard-skin briefs; I laughed because the ad was on a Web site, and after almost 70 years, the program was still being sold. Curiosity got the better of me and I sent in my US$50. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Rise of the Bagel

The hole truth

I love Friday mornings. It used to be that I looked forward to Fridays simply because they were the last work day of the week. Then I began working for an employer with the wonderful tradition of providing free bagels and cream cheese for the entire company every Friday morning. They were good bagels, too. Not only was this a great incentive to get to work on time, it put me in a proper frame of mind to be productive and happy for the rest of the day. Ever since then, I’ve carried this custom with me to other places I’ve worked, and even when “work” means my home office, I make an effort to get a fresh bagel on Friday mornings. It’s just the right thing to do.

A Hole in the Story
There are, by actual count, umpteen bajillion Web sites that proudly recount the history of the bagel—that is to say, a lovely and plausible story that explains everything except the crucial points. The story says that bagels were invented in 1683 by an anonymous Jewish baker in Austria. King Jan Sobieski (a.k.a. King John III) of Poland had just saved Austria from a Turkish invasion, and because of his legendary equestrian skills, bread in the shape of a stirrup (or bügel in German) was seen as an appropriate way to honor him. That’s wonderful and all, but the real mystery, which no one seems to have solved, is who came up with the idea to boil bagels before baking them, which is what gives them their characteristic texture both inside and out. (Depending on who you ask, bagels should be boiled for anywhere from a few seconds to six minutes before baking; in my opinion, longer is better.) Equally mysterious is how cream cheese, and later, smoked salmon, came to be intimately associated with the bagel. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Story of Phineas Gage

Brain damage and personality

In September, 1848, the Rutland & Burlington Railroad was expanding its line across Vermont. In order to keep the tracks as straight as possible, construction workers first had to remove a great deal of stone. The foreman of one group of men undertaking this difficult task was Phineas P. Gage. Twenty-five-year-old Gage was intelligent, kind, and well-liked. He was also quite athletic and agile, and impressed his employers as being exceptionally efficient at his work.

Gage was an expert at removing rock using explosives. The procedure was to drill into the rock, fill the hole halfway with explosive powder, insert a fuse, and then cover the powder with sand. The layer of sand was necessary to direct the force of the blast into the rock, rather than out the top of the hole, and the sand had to be packed down by pounding it with a specially designed iron tamping rod. Gage had a custom-made rod that weighed 13 pounds (5.9kg) and measured 3 1/2 feet (1.1m) long, with a diameter of 1 1/4 inches (3.2cm) at the bottom, tapering to a dull point at the top. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Muffin Tops

Bottomless enjoyment

It’s all about dedication. In the course of my research for Interesting Thing of the Day, I have sometimes gone to great lengths to ensure the accuracy and completeness of the articles I write. If that means drinking absinthe or eating doughnuts or trudging through Paris museums, well, these are the sacrifices a responsible journalist must make. I even enlisted my wife’s assistance to undertake a tedious and grueling muffin-baking experiment, subjecting myself to untold nutritional perils to be sure that you, gentle reader, receive the most reliable information. And indeed, I now feel qualified to hold forth on the culinary mystery of muffin tops.

Do You Know the Muffin, Man?
Muffin tops are, as everyone knows, truly the upper crust of muffindom. Most people prefer the top to the stump—at least when you’re talking about those jumbo-sized, coffee-shop muffins, as opposed to the kind you make from a mix in your kitchen. But this fact suggests several questions. Why is the top so much better? How does one go about making a muffin with the kind of top beloved by Seinfeld partisans? And how can one obtain a high-quality top without wasting a perfectly good but less appealing stump? These were the questions I set out to answer. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Mantle Convection

Currents under the earth’s crust

Many years ago I read an article in which the author jokingly referred to something called the “International Stop Continental Drift Society.” Believe it or not, ISCDS was an actual organization in the early 1980s that produced a tongue-in-cheek newsletter for geologists. If it were still around, I’d join in a second: stopping continental drift, like any number of other futile and pointless endeavors, is a cause I could really get behind. Besides, given the complex subject matter, I’d probably learn a lot more from a humorous article than a dry textbook.

In our family, I’m the science guy; my wife tends more toward arts and literature. But she also took a college class that covered plate tectonics, a subject I knew very little about. It gave me a warm feeling in my heart to hear her excitedly talking about continental drift and what happens when the edge of one tectonic plate dives below another one. That’s the kind of stuff we should find interesting, especially since we get plenty of firsthand experience with seismic activity here in San Francisco. But one topic from Morgen’s class stuck out as being particularly interesting: the theory of mantle convection. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Discovery of Radium

Marie Curie’s miracle cure

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

One of the central paradoxes of scientific research and technological development is that while every new discovery brings previously unknown possibilities to light, these discoveries can also have negative effects that may not be readily apparent. For example, certain medicines may provide exciting new treatment options, but it’s only later that their side effects come to light. One of the most glaring examples of this was the thalidomide scandal in the late 1950s, when thousands of women took this drug to combat morning sickness during pregnancy, and it was later found to cause birth defects. Similarly, in the 19th century, opium was thought of as a cure-all before its highly addictive nature was fully understood.

Along the same lines, Marie Sklodowska Curie’s discovery of the element radium in 1898 at first seemed to lead the way to a variety of novel medical treatments, but as the properties of radioactive materials became better known, radium’s health benefits came to seem more limited. Once added to everything from toothpaste to face cream, radium’s reputation went from cutting edge to dangerous within a few short decades. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Crème Brûlée

Why every kitchen needs a blowtorch

The restaurants of America—especially those of the fast-food variety—have come under attack for, among other things, making portion sizes much too large. This, nutritionists say, is one of the main causes of obesity. But I think the biggest problem with large portions is that they make it that much harder for patrons to leave room for dessert. I believe deeply in dessert, and few things cause me as much grief as arriving at the end of a meal only to discover I’m so full that I couldn’t possibly consider even one wafer-thin mint. A sad state of affairs indeed.

Being the sort of snob I am when it comes to French food, I have a special fondness for dishes—especially desserts—that are decadent, inventive, and spelled with an excessive number of accent marks. I can’t think of any dessert that fits that description better than crème brûlée. All things being equal, I usually prefer desserts that have a high chocolate content, but I do make occasional exceptions. What crème brûlée lacks in chocolate it makes up for in fat, calories, and general impressiveness. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Starlite

The mystery miracle heatproof plastic

In the early 1990s, magazine articles and television shows in Great Britain and the United States ran a series of stories about an incredible new invention: a type of plastic that could withstand virtually any amount of heat. The material’s properties confounded scientists, but even more amazing was that its creator, Maurice Ward, had no academic credentials—he was, in fact, a former hairdresser from North Yorkshire, England. Ward saw a news story about how most of the deaths in an airplane accident had been caused by the toxic fumes from burning plastics. Having spent time working on new formulations for shampoo and conditioner in his home laboratory, he decided to try his hand at concocting a more flame-retardant plastic, and after a series of experiments that ran from 1986 to 1989, he came up with a formula that seemed to be impervious to any sort of heat. His granddaughter suggested that he call the stuff “Starlite.”

That’s Hot
Ward’s initial attempts to interest chemical companies in his new product were entirely unsuccessful; no one took the outrageous claims of this amateur inventor seriously. Then a respectable defense journal published the results of several tests by government agencies. The tests showed, among other things, that a thin piece of Starlite wouldn’t burn even when subjected to temperatures as high as 10,000°C—that’s hotter than the surface of the sun. The material withstood even simulated nuclear blasts and high-powered lasers. That journal article, and others that followed it, began to generate a great deal of interest in Starlite, especially in the defense industry. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Pie Funnels

A piecrust’s best friend

Cherry pie has always been one of my favorite desserts, and this preference was only reinforced by my repeated viewings of the TV series Twin Peaks. A few years ago I had the pleasure of meeting Pat Cokewell, erstwhile owner of the Mar T Cafe (now called Twede’s) in North Bend, Washington. The Mar T achieved fame as the “RR Diner” on Twin Peaks, and it was Pat’s cherry pies that inspired director David Lynch to make the diner (and the pies) a central feature of the show. The cherry pies Pat bakes are indeed unimpeachable (and I’m sure even her peach pies are excellent). After sampling them I decided to teach myself how to bake cherry pies, and while I can’t yet claim to match Pat’s expertise, I’ve done OK.

The Crust of the Matter
The crust, of course, is the trickiest part of the pie to master, and I’ve messed up more than a few. In the course of my pie experiments, I’ve accumulated a pretty thorough collection of pie paraphernalia—a variety of pie pans, weights that are used to hold down a crust when baking it “blind” (without a filling), the special metal guards you put over the edges to keep them from burning, and so on. I considered myself quite well versed in the apparatus of pie-making until my wife came back from a trip to a large kitchen store with a shocking discovery: there was a Pie Thing I didn’t yet have, and indeed had never even heard of. It’s called a pie funnel. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Discovery of Radium

Marie Curie’s miracle cure

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

One of the central paradoxes of scientific research and technological development is that while every new discovery brings previously unknown possibilities to light, these discoveries can also have negative effects that may not be readily apparent. For example, certain medicines may provide exciting new treatment options, but it’s only later that their side effects come to light. One of the most glaring examples of this was the thalidomide scandal in the late 1950s, when thousands of women took this drug to combat morning sickness during pregnancy, and it was later found to cause birth defects. Similarly, in the 19th century, opium was thought of as a cure-all before its highly addictive nature was fully understood.

Along the same lines, Marie Sklodowska Curie’s discovery of the element radium in 1898 at first seemed to lead the way to a variety of novel medical treatments, but as the properties of radioactive materials became better known, radium’s health benefits came to seem more limited. Once added to everything from toothpaste to face cream, radium’s reputation went from cutting edge to dangerous within a few short decades. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Starlite

The mystery miracle heatproof plastic

In the early 1990s, magazine articles and television shows in Great Britain and the United States ran a series of stories about an incredible new invention: a type of plastic that could withstand virtually any amount of heat. The material’s properties confounded scientists, but even more amazing was that its creator, Maurice Ward, had no academic credentials—he was, in fact, a former hairdresser from North Yorkshire, England. Ward saw a news story about how most of the deaths in an airplane accident had been caused by the toxic fumes from burning plastics. Having spent time working on new formulations for shampoo and conditioner in his home laboratory, he decided to try his hand at concocting a more flame-retardant plastic, and after a series of experiments that ran from 1986 to 1989, he came up with a formula that seemed to be impervious to any sort of heat. His granddaughter suggested that he call the stuff “Starlite.”

That’s Hot
Ward’s initial attempts to interest chemical companies in his new product were entirely unsuccessful; no one took the outrageous claims of this amateur inventor seriously. Then a respectable defense journal published the results of several tests by government agencies. The tests showed, among other things, that a thin piece of Starlite wouldn’t burn even when subjected to temperatures as high as 10,000°C—that’s hotter than the surface of the sun. The material withstood even simulated nuclear blasts and high-powered lasers. That journal article, and others that followed it, began to generate a great deal of interest in Starlite, especially in the defense industry. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Winchester Mystery House

The building project of a lifetime

San Jose, California—about an hour’s drive south of San Francisco—is the unofficial center of Silicon Valley. Lots of high-tech companies are based in or near San Jose, and of the dozens of times I’ve been there, all but one or two were for a technology-related conference of one sort or another. It’s an attractive small city with some excellent museums, parks, and restaurants. But San Jose’s biggest tourist attraction was built long before computers made their mark on the area. About five miles (8km) from downtown, the Winchester Mystery House draws huge crowds almost every day of the year for a simple walking tour of what may be the country’s strangest residential building.

Everyone in the Bay Area seems to know about the Winchester House, to the extent that billboards advertising the attraction don’t give any information other than its name. When I first moved to northern California several years ago, these signs puzzled me. Even after reading a brochure about the house, I didn’t quite grasp what it was all about until I visited for myself. The Winchester Mystery House is undeniably interesting, though whether it lives up to its hype is another question. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Neuschwanstein Castle

King Ludwig II’s tribute to Wagner

Before visiting Germany a few years ago, I didn’t know very much about German history or culture, and didn’t really care to. I had always had a warm place in my heart for France, and felt my Gallic tastes were fundamentally at odds with what little I had grasped of life in Germany. As I saw things, the French language was smoother and more mellifluous than German; the French favored wine (as I do) where Germans were more fond of beer; the French countryside was organic and endearingly unkempt while rural Germany was spotless and well-manicured, and so on. In other words, Germany was undoubtedly nice enough, but just not my style.

My wife, however, has more overt German roots (even her name, Morgen, is spelled like the German word for morning). She had spent some time in Germany while in high school, spoke German well, and had the same sort of idealized fondness for Germany that I had for France. So in the interest of fostering marital harmony, we humored each other on our first trip to Europe together. She agreed to spend some time in Provence, and I agreed to spend some time in Bavaria. Needless to say, this was not a hardship for either of us. We ate and drank well in both countries and collected plenty of interesting stories. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

One-Log House

Northern California’s famous redwood attraction

I’ve always wondered about the expression “famous for being famous.” It seems to denote someone or something with no intrinsic appeal but with a high level of self-replicating buzz or hype. I can think of examples of famous people and things that seemingly don’t deserve to be famous, but what has always puzzled me is how that buzz about nothing gets started. In other words, how could I become famous for being famous? If it’s true that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, maybe it would be fun to be famous for being famous. Not “Joe Kissell the famous author” or even “Joe Kissell the famous curator of Interesting Things” but just “Joe Kissell the Famous.” Sure, all things being equal, I’d prefer to be known as smart and talented, but notoriety itself can be useful.

One time-tested technique for building up unearned fame is the self-fulfilling prophecy. If you declare something to be the case, loudly enough and persistently enough, you may set in motion a chain reaction that will eventually make it true. This phenomenon is of course well-known in California, even in the quiet rural areas far from the machinery of Hollywood fantasy. A case in point: the Famous One-Log House of Garberville, California. No one can say how famous it is, or for what reasons, or among what group of people, but undoubtedly that one word on the sign has convinced hundreds of visitors to pull off the road and have a look rather than just zipping by. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Fasting

There’s more to not eating than you think

Because of my abiding interests in food, cooking, and unusual stories, I was excited to discover the books of Margaret Visser. Visser achieved literary fame for her books on the culture of eating: Much Depends on Dinner and The Rituals of Dinner. But the first book of hers I read was The Way We Are, a collection of short essays on all sorts of interesting things, from the unexpected origins of words to the stories behind everyday customs and cultural artifacts—each one backed by a solid bibliography. Hmmmm, a series of short essays on interesting things. What a concept! Although I did not deliberately try to emulate Visser’s M.O. on this site, it certainly was an implicit inspiration.

One of Visser’s topics in particular caught my attention: fasting. On a few rare occasions I had fasted for a day at a time, but Visser was talking about extended fasts—those lasting more than a few days. According to Visser and other sources I consulted, an extended fast has some fascinating characteristics I had never contemplated. For one thing, hunger is supposed to disappear after the first three or four days. The body adapts to the absence of intake and more or less goes about its business without complaining. Intriguingly, the mind purportedly becomes more alert, less sleep is needed, and thinking becomes clearer. On the downside (or perhaps not, depending on your point of view), sexual energy and desire diminish. Accumulated toxins are also released, which can be healthy for the body’s organs but has a side effect of significant body odor and bad breath. All this continues for anywhere from three to six weeks, depending on a variety of factors including the size of your body and overall health. At that point, hunger returns, signaling that you must eat soon in order to survive. Ignore this sensation, and your muscles, bones, and organs will rapidly deteriorate, leading to starvation. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Benedictine Oblates

Becoming a modern monk

Guest Article by Sheri Hostetler

Thanks to Kathleen Norris, being a Benedictine oblate is almost hip these days. Norris is the author of the critically received books Dakota: A Spiritual Geography and The Cloister Walk. Both tell the story of a literary New Yorker who moved to the Great Plains and found a spiritual life at—of all places—a Benedictine monastery. More than any other person since Thomas Merton, Norris has helped rekindle interest in monastic spirituality among the “thinking crowd.”

While I’d like to think that I became a Benedictine oblate before reading Norris (somehow I think it is morally superior to choose a path before it becomes popular), the truth is that her ruminations on the relevancy of Benedictine spirituality for contemporary life were formative in my own choice. I became an oblate of a small Benedictine community in Oakland, California, in 1999. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

T'ai Chi Ch'uan

The meditative martial art

There’s nothing like a good action film, especially if it involves martial arts. Explosions and chases are all well and good, but I like kung fu better. I’ll eagerly watch Jackie Chan, Chow Yun Fat, or even Keanu Reeves give the bad guys a whomping using no weapons other than physical skill and a sharp mind. In the real world, though, I find the best kung fu not in the flashy, Hollywood-friendly jumps and kicks, but in a discipline your grandmother may well practice: the slow, gentle movements of a martial art called t’ai chi ch’uan.

For a westerner, the first challenge in learning about a Chinese martial art is figuring out how to pronounce it. There are several systems for representing Chinese sounds using the Roman alphabet. These varying transliterations have led to numerous spellings (“tai chi chuan,” “t’ai chi ch’uan,” “taijiquan,” etc.) and pronunciations. I’ll leave the details for another article, but if you want to avoid ambiguity it’s best to use the pronunciation “tai ji,” because the chi in “t’ai chi” is not at all the same thing as ch’i (or qi), a Chinese word usually translated as “internal energy.” [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Charles Atlas Dynamic-Tension Fitness Course

Isometric blast from the past

I’m not what you’d call a “fitness freak.” I’ve spent enough time in gyms to know how the machines work and experience the sensation of building up a sweat, and I like to do t’ai chi. I also live on a San Francisco hill, so I get an aerobic jolt just walking home from the subway. But working out for its own sake is not really my idea of a good time. My disenfranchisement with exercise goes way back. All throughout school, I was the kid who got picked on in phys. ed. classes—the last one chosen for teams, the slowest in races, the kid who couldn’t do a chin-up if his life depended on it. The shared trauma of phys. ed. embarrassments from high school strengthened my bond with my wife. When we were first dating, I asked her how she felt about exercise, and she replied, “My motto is: ‘no pain, no pain.’” A woman after my own heart.

A few years ago I stumbled across an ad that made me laugh: it was one of those Charles Atlas comic-book ads from the 1930s. You know the basic idea: the skinny 97-pound weakling gets sand kicked in his face at the beach, but he can’t stand up to the bully so he loses the girl. Then he sends for Mr. Atlas’s program and one frame later, he’s admiring his new body in the mirror. He goes back to the beach, decks the bully, and gets the girl. The ad then goes on to show a photo of a smiling Charles Atlas with the caption “The World’s Most Perfectly Developed Man.” The reason I laughed at the ad was not just that it reflected a long-forgotten advertising style or that Atlas looked goofy in his leopard-skin briefs; I laughed because the ad was on a Web site, and after almost 70 years, the program was still being sold. Curiosity got the better of me and I sent in my US$50. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Rise of the Bagel

The hole truth

I love Friday mornings. It used to be that I looked forward to Fridays simply because they were the last work day of the week. Then I began working for an employer with the wonderful tradition of providing free bagels and cream cheese for the entire company every Friday morning. They were good bagels, too. Not only was this a great incentive to get to work on time, it put me in a proper frame of mind to be productive and happy for the rest of the day. Ever since then, I’ve carried this custom with me to other places I’ve worked, and even when “work” means my home office, I make an effort to get a fresh bagel on Friday mornings. It’s just the right thing to do.

A Hole in the Story
There are, by actual count, umpteen bajillion Web sites that proudly recount the history of the bagel—that is to say, a lovely and plausible story that explains everything except the crucial points. The story says that bagels were invented in 1683 by an anonymous Jewish baker in Austria. King Jan Sobieski (a.k.a. King John III) of Poland had just saved Austria from a Turkish invasion, and because of his legendary equestrian skills, bread in the shape of a stirrup (or bügel in German) was seen as an appropriate way to honor him. That’s wonderful and all, but the real mystery, which no one seems to have solved, is who came up with the idea to boil bagels before baking them, which is what gives them their characteristic texture both inside and out. (Depending on who you ask, bagels should be boiled for anywhere from a few seconds to six minutes before baking; in my opinion, longer is better.) Equally mysterious is how cream cheese, and later, smoked salmon, came to be intimately associated with the bagel. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Story of Phineas Gage

Brain damage and personality

In September, 1848, the Rutland & Burlington Railroad was expanding its line across Vermont. In order to keep the tracks as straight as possible, construction workers first had to remove a great deal of stone. The foreman of one group of men undertaking this difficult task was Phineas P. Gage. Twenty-five-year-old Gage was intelligent, kind, and well-liked. He was also quite athletic and agile, and impressed his employers as being exceptionally efficient at his work.

Gage was an expert at removing rock using explosives. The procedure was to drill into the rock, fill the hole halfway with explosive powder, insert a fuse, and then cover the powder with sand. The layer of sand was necessary to direct the force of the blast into the rock, rather than out the top of the hole, and the sand had to be packed down by pounding it with a specially designed iron tamping rod. Gage had a custom-made rod that weighed 13 pounds (5.9kg) and measured 3 1/2 feet (1.1m) long, with a diameter of 1 1/4 inches (3.2cm) at the bottom, tapering to a dull point at the top. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Muffin Tops

Bottomless enjoyment

It’s all about dedication. In the course of my research for Interesting Thing of the Day, I have sometimes gone to great lengths to ensure the accuracy and completeness of the articles I write. If that means drinking absinthe or eating doughnuts or trudging through Paris museums, well, these are the sacrifices a responsible journalist must make. I even enlisted my wife’s assistance to undertake a tedious and grueling muffin-baking experiment, subjecting myself to untold nutritional perils to be sure that you, gentle reader, receive the most reliable information. And indeed, I now feel qualified to hold forth on the culinary mystery of muffin tops.

Do You Know the Muffin, Man?
Muffin tops are, as everyone knows, truly the upper crust of muffindom. Most people prefer the top to the stump—at least when you’re talking about those jumbo-sized, coffee-shop muffins, as opposed to the kind you make from a mix in your kitchen. But this fact suggests several questions. Why is the top so much better? How does one go about making a muffin with the kind of top beloved by Seinfeld partisans? And how can one obtain a high-quality top without wasting a perfectly good but less appealing stump? These were the questions I set out to answer. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Mantle Convection

Currents under the earth’s crust

Many years ago I read an article in which the author jokingly referred to something called the “International Stop Continental Drift Society.” Believe it or not, ISCDS was an actual organization in the early 1980s that produced a tongue-in-cheek newsletter for geologists. If it were still around, I’d join in a second: stopping continental drift, like any number of other futile and pointless endeavors, is a cause I could really get behind. Besides, given the complex subject matter, I’d probably learn a lot more from a humorous article than a dry textbook.

In our family, I’m the science guy; my wife tends more toward arts and literature. But she also took a college class that covered plate tectonics, a subject I knew very little about. It gave me a warm feeling in my heart to hear her excitedly talking about continental drift and what happens when the edge of one tectonic plate dives below another one. That’s the kind of stuff we should find interesting, especially since we get plenty of firsthand experience with seismic activity here in San Francisco. But one topic from Morgen’s class stuck out as being particularly interesting: the theory of mantle convection. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Crème Brûlée

Why every kitchen needs a blowtorch

The restaurants of America—especially those of the fast-food variety—have come under attack for, among other things, making portion sizes much too large. This, nutritionists say, is one of the main causes of obesity. But I think the biggest problem with large portions is that they make it that much harder for patrons to leave room for dessert. I believe deeply in dessert, and few things cause me as much grief as arriving at the end of a meal only to discover I’m so full that I couldn’t possibly consider even one wafer-thin mint. A sad state of affairs indeed.

Being the sort of snob I am when it comes to French food, I have a special fondness for dishes—especially desserts—that are decadent, inventive, and spelled with an excessive number of accent marks. I can’t think of any dessert that fits that description better than crème brûlée. All things being equal, I usually prefer desserts that have a high chocolate content, but I do make occasional exceptions. What crème brûlée lacks in chocolate it makes up for in fat, calories, and general impressiveness. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Pie Funnels

A piecrust’s best friend

Cherry pie has always been one of my favorite desserts, and this preference was only reinforced by my repeated viewings of the TV series Twin Peaks. A few years ago I had the pleasure of meeting Pat Cokewell, erstwhile owner of the Mar T Cafe (now called Twede’s) in North Bend, Washington. The Mar T achieved fame as the “RR Diner” on Twin Peaks, and it was Pat’s cherry pies that inspired director David Lynch to make the diner (and the pies) a central feature of the show. The cherry pies Pat bakes are indeed unimpeachable (and I’m sure even her peach pies are excellent). After sampling them I decided to teach myself how to bake cherry pies, and while I can’t yet claim to match Pat’s expertise, I’ve done OK.

The Crust of the Matter
The crust, of course, is the trickiest part of the pie to master, and I’ve messed up more than a few. In the course of my pie experiments, I’ve accumulated a pretty thorough collection of pie paraphernalia—a variety of pie pans, weights that are used to hold down a crust when baking it “blind” (without a filling), the special metal guards you put over the edges to keep them from burning, and so on. I considered myself quite well versed in the apparatus of pie-making until my wife came back from a trip to a large kitchen store with a shocking discovery: there was a Pie Thing I didn’t yet have, and indeed had never even heard of. It’s called a pie funnel. [Article Continues…]

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