From the archives…

Emperor Norton

Monarch of San Francisco

When someone refers to my hometown as “San Fran,” I really bristle. People who live in other parts of the world may think “San Francisco” has too many syllables, but locals don’t ever call it “San Fran.” Ever. And only in an effort to be intentionally gauche or ironic would a resident call it “Frisco.” That’s just wrong, and it immediately identifies anyone who says it as clueless. This judgment goes way, way back. A century and a half ago, by the emperor’s decree, calling the city “Frisco” was a high misdemeanor punishable by a $25 fine.

Today’s interesting “thing” is ostensibly a person, though in fact it’s more of a concept: the notion that someone could declare himself to be an emperor, and—without any force or intimidation—actually get an entire city to go along with the fantasy, at least superficially, for more than 20 years. I am speaking of one of San Francisco’s most colorful historical figures: Joshua A. Norton, a.k.a. His Imperial Majesty Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Coin Tossing

Putting a new spin on randomness

In high school, I read Tom Stoppard’s 1967 play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, a hilarious take on the lives of two minor (and more or less interchangeable) characters from Hamlet. A lot of the dialog has to do with the philosophical question of destiny. At the beginning of the play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are tossing coins, and incredibly, 100 consecutive spins come up heads until a “lucky” toss finally comes up tails. This nicely illustrates the futility of the characters’ actions and also puts them squarely in some alternative reality—we all know that in the real world, coin tosses are random and couldn’t possibly come up heads 100 times in a row. We depend on this fact; otherwise, all the bets and disagreements that have been settled by this simple selection mechanism must be in doubt.

When I wrote about rock, paper, scissors tournaments, I made a passing reference to my favorite “binary random number generator,” a coin toss. A reader sent me a note saying that wasn’t quite accurate—coin tosses are not truly random. Talk about shaking the foundations of my faith. What insidious conspiracy could be behind this astonishing claim? Or could it simply be that a bunch of statisticians had entirely too much time on their hands? [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Breathing Liquid

The frontiers of human respiration

It’s funny the way random little factoids stick in my head, even after many years. When I was in eighth grade, I did a report for my science class on Pascal’s Law, a description of the way fluids behave in a closed system (and the basis of all hydraulics, among other things). And in the course of researching that project I came across a tiny piece of information that blew my 13-year-old mind: the word fluid is not a synonym of liquid; a fluid can be a liquid or a gas. Really? I’ve been breathing a fluid all my life? I just couldn’t get over it. Neither could my friends—I thought my endless recitations of trivia made me look smarter, but they found it annoying.

Years later, I read a Star Trek novel in which the crew of the Enterprise encountered a race of humanoid beings who breathed a liquid; the book went to great lengths to describe what that experience was like for one of the humans who had to interact with them. Although this fictional liquid was compatible with human lungs, the psychological shock of breathing a liquid was pretty intense. Later still, the very same concept showed up in the 1989 film The Abyss. But hey, that’s all just science fiction, right? Amazingly enough, humans can indeed breathe certain very special liquids. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Bee Venom Therapy

A stinging endorsement

My experience may be exceptional, but I’ve found the several bee stings I’ve received over the years to be rather unpleasant—even after remembering my favorite things, I still felt pretty bad. So when a reader wrote to tell me about a treatment for such conditions as arthritis and multiple sclerosis (MS) that involves voluntarily stinging oneself with bees, I must admit I found the whole idea rather creepy and off-putting. Although this alternative therapy has not yet proven itself in widespread clinical trials, quite a few people swear by it, insisting that the benefits far outweigh the pain. And even some doctors are trying it with their patients. I feel obliged to insert the usual “don’t try this at home” and “your mileage may vary” disclaimers, but though the jury is officially still out, an increasing body of evidence suggests that there just may be something to this weird notion after all.

A Little Jab’ll Do Ya
Numerous poisons can—in small enough quantities and under the right conditions—produce beneficial effects. So it’s entirely plausible that the same is true of bee venom, or at least some of its components, even though its main purpose is to protect the bees by inflicting pain. Bee venom therapy is a subset of apitherapy, the medicinal use of any substances created by honeybees—including royal jelly and honey, each of which is already known to have some health benefits. Researchers have discovered a number of very interesting substances in bee venom—most prominently, melittin, a powerful anti-inflammatory agent. This gives some credence to the anecdotal reports that beekeepers who were stung repeatedly experienced a reduction in the pain and swelling of arthritis. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Tree Tumbo

Mystery plant of the desert

A couple of years ago, I began noticing that our home could use some brightening up, and I thought it might be a good idea to buy a few houseplants. But I’ve never done well with plants. I even managed to kill off several cacti, despite my best efforts. So I walked into a local plant store and asked what they had that could survive under my care. The owner assured me that African violets would be a safe choice. I said, “But no, really…flowers hate me. In fact, most plants run and hide when they see me coming.” But after listening to detailed instructions, I finally agreed that I could probably care for just this one small potted plant successfully. I found one with flowers just the right shade and took it home. Well, the good news is that the plant is still alive. The bad news is that its condition gives all new meaning to the expression “persistent vegetative state,” if you know what I mean. It hasn’t flowered in eons, some of its droopy leaves are a sickly shade of yellow, and it’s clearly hanging on simply to emphasize its ongoing contempt for me. My most sincere intentions notwithstanding, I just can’t seem to keep plants healthy.

When I saw pictures of a plant called Welwitschia mirabilis (also known by such names as “tree tumbo” or “onion of the desert”) it looked very much like it could have been a previously beautiful specimen that had the misfortune of spending a season or two in my yard. In other words, it looked pretty sick and ugly. But appearances, in this case, are deceiving. This incredibly odd and unattractive plant can thrive in extraordinarily inhospitable conditions—and that’s just the start. The tree tumbo is without a doubt one of the world’s oddest plants. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Optical Painters' Aids

A matter of perspective

Although I like to think of myself as a multitalented “Renaissance man” of sorts, I must admit that when it comes to drawing and painting, I have absolutely no ability. I’m truly pitiful at Pictionary, and I couldn’t paint my way out of a paper bag. Or so I’ve always thought. Based on what I’ve been reading lately, I could probably produce some fantastic art from the inside of a very large paper bag, as long as it had a pinhole on one side and pretty bright light outside. All I’d have to do is trace the image projected by this primitive camera obscura. According to a controversial theory, this technique—or something very much like it—gave some world-renowned artists a little help as far back as 1420. Then again…maybe not. Getting to the bottom of this puzzle has been the consuming passion of quite a few artists, historians, and optical engineers over the past several years.

Without a Trace
Tracing over a projected image is a straightforward notion, but if you’ve ever tried it (as I have) you probably discovered that getting good results is not as easy as it sounds. The easy part is getting the proportions right. But lots of things in any image lack well-defined borders, and trying to make sense of textures and the effects of light and shadow while tracing something is quite a complex undertaking. If, instead of tracing, I were painting, the challenge would become even greater, as I’d have to carefully match gradations in color—and as soon as I applied a dark paint to the light surface, the image in that area would virtually disappear. All that to say: projection or no projection, producing a convincingly realistic drawing or painting takes a lot of skill and practice. So if it turned out that one of the great masters from centuries ago really did pull this off, I’d be no less impressed by the final product—and more impressed by the artist’s cleverness. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Milgram Obedience Experiments

Just following orders

As a teenager, I never thought of myself as someone who had a problem with authority. I may not have liked what I was being told to do, and I may have complained, but it was not in my nature to say no. I had my first crisis of authority when I was 16. I was learning to drive, and I’d already failed my driving test—twice. (The first time, I couldn’t parallel park and I ran into a cone; the second time, I didn’t come to a complete stop at a stop sign.) After several more weeks of practicing and diligently studying the driver’s manual, I was taking my third and final test. If I failed that, I’d have to apply for a learner’s permit all over again and endure embarrassing months of being the only person my age without a license. So the pressure was on. With the examiner, a police officer, in the passenger’s seat and sweat on my brow, I carefully completed the entire course—and I thought I did well.

At the very end, the officer told me to pull over at a certain spot and park the car. And I had a moment of complete panic: the spot he’d indicated was just a few feet from a stop sign, and I remembered from the driver’s manual that it was illegal to park so close. Was this one last test? If I obeyed, I thought, I could be failed for breaking the law. So I hesitated and said, “Isn’t that too close to the stop sign?” The officer became furious and started berating me for my arrogance, reminding me that the manual said, “…unless directed otherwise by a uniformed officer of the law.” Tugging at his sleeve, he ranted, “What does this look like, my pajamas?” He went on and on until I was about ready to shrivel up and die, but in the end, he passed me anyway. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

InterPlay

Getting grown-ups back into their bodies

There’s an old joke that I’ve heard attributed, in one form or another, to numerous religious groups. It goes: “Why do Baptists (or Methodists, or Mennonites, or Jews, or whatever) prohibit premarital sex? Because it could lead to dancing.” The implication, obviously, is that the group’s taboo against dancing is so strong that it overshadows the moral principle that gave rise to it in the first place; dancing becomes not just a potential path to evil but an evil in and of itself. One of the theological views that sometimes motivates this position is that the body (or “flesh”) is inherently sinful or corrupt, and must be ruthlessly subjugated to the purer values of the spirit. This was certainly the view of the religious tradition in which I grew up. Any activity that even suggested carnal pleasure outside strictly delimited boundaries was an immoral concession to humanity’s fallen nature.

Although this sort of thinking may be an extreme example, it’s indicative of a broader and older cultural trend, which some people refer to as the “mind-body split.” Whether you trace this trend back to Cartesian dualism, the early days of Christianity, or some other source, it amounts to a belief that the body is somehow an ontologically separate entity from the mind (or “soul,” or “spirit”). Perhaps the two are even in competition or conflict with each other. Even if, as adults, we recognize that by implicitly accepting this split we’ve become disintegrated and unbalanced, it’s difficult to reprogram ourselves to recover that sense of being a single, unified whole. A practice called InterPlay exists to encourage that process by helping people to rediscover and express one of their most basic, primal needs: play. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Parkour

Turning a city into an obstacle course

When I began studying t’ai chi almost 10 years ago, one of my reasons for doing so was a desire to learn how to move more gracefully and meaningfully. I thought (correctly, as it turned out) that t’ai chi would be a safe, interesting, and enjoyable way to learn what it feels like to move intentionally and become more aware of my posture, balance, and physical interactions with my environment.

When I first read about a sport (or art or activity) called parkour, the philosophy behind it sounded very similar: an emphasis on fluid, elegant, graceful motions. But in practice, parkour is about as different from t’ai chi as I can imagine. It’s sometimes considered an “extreme” sport; as its participants dash around a city, they may vault over fences, run up walls, and even jump from rooftop to rooftop. So you won’t see senior citizens doing it in the park on Sunday mornings, but if you do witness it, you may think you’re watching a stunt person on a movie set. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Operation Migration

Follow that airplane!

The exact techniques migrating birds use to find their way across thousands of miles to exactly the same spots year after year are only partially understood. Watching for landmarks is clearly part of it—but equally clearly, it’s not the whole story. Certain types of birds have been shown to rely only minimally on vision, in some cases apparently getting their bearings from the Earth’s magnetic field. Be that as it may, some bird species have strong migratory instincts, while others (including geese, ducks, and cranes) must be taught the way to and from their winter homes. A single demonstration is enough to program the route into a bird’s memory, but what happens when a bird never gets that first demonstration? It has no idea where to go, and as a result, its survival is threatened if it can’t find enough food when the seasons change.

This situation poses a unique problem for certain birds raised in captivity, such as the whooping crane (Grus americana)—the tallest flying bird in North America, with a height of up to 5 feet (about 1.5m) and a wingspan as wide as 8 feet (about 2.5m). By the middle of the 20th century, the worldwide population of wild whooping cranes had dipped to only 15, bringing the species perilously close to extinction. (A century earlier, there had been about 1,400 of them—and even that was a dangerously small number.) As a result of diligent conservation efforts, those few remaining birds were protected in the wild, and their numbers gradually began to increase; today, that flock numbers about 200. Meanwhile, some of their eggs were hatched in captivity to breed a “backup” flock, in case some natural disaster (such as a hurricane) wiped out the others. After several years of careful breeding and release, a non-migratory flock of nearly 100 is now living in Florida. However, what everyone wanted to see was the reestablishment of another migratory flock—a group of whooping cranes that spent their summers in Wisconsin and their winters in Florida, just as other flocks had done decades earlier. But although the birds could be bred and released successfully, there was no apparent way to teach them a safe way to fly from one home to the other. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Portmanteau

When words intertwingle

One of the great things about language—any language, but I’m thinking especially of English—is how badly you can mangle it and still be understood. All spoken language has a certain amount of built-in redundancy, so you can figure out, for example, what would have come at the end of this sentence if I’d bothered to… And the same is true at the level of individual words. If I say “gonna” instead of “going to” or “kinda” instead of “kind of,” you’ll still know exactly what I’m trying to say.

What Isn’t in a Word
When I was studying linguistics, I ran across quite a few terms that refer, in one sense or another, to missing sounds (intentional or otherwise). Here are a few examples:

  • contraction: a word formed from two or more other words, as in isn’t from “is not” or it’s from “it has”< [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Passenger Pigeons

The great American extinction

I have a confession to make. Even though my wife, Morgen, is an endless fount of interesting topics, when she suggested that I write about passenger pigeons, my first reaction was a yawn. How interesting can pigeons be? There are bazillions of them out there—I practically trip over them walking down the sidewalk every day. “But passenger pigeons are extinct,” she said. So are lots of animals, and that’s very sad, but it still doesn’t make them particularly interesting to the general public. She kept insisting that no, really, this particular kind of extinct pigeon is truly fascinating, and I kept displaying a complete lack of enthusiasm. Finally, she started reading some facts off a Web page. After the first couple of items, I thought, “Yeah, OK, that’s a bit interesting, but if that’s all there is to it…” Only it wasn’t. She kept reading—and I kept saying “Wow.” Even I had to admit, yes, the story of the passenger pigeon is quite interesting. So by way of penance, allow me to present the poop (as it were) on passenger pigeons.

The last passenger pigeon in the world died less than 100 years ago—in 1914, according to most reports. In fact, we know exactly when and where the species went extinct: Tuesday, September 1, 1914, at 1:00 p.m. Eastern time at the Cincinnati Zoo. We even know the last bird’s name: Martha. She was 29 years old. It’s rather extraordinary that we should have such detailed and precise information about the moment when a species meets its demise—the passenger pigeon is almost certainly unique in that regard. What’s even more extraordinary is that just a century or so earlier, passenger pigeons had been more numerous than any other bird in North America—numbering in the billions. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Leonardo's Robots

Renaissance man meets mechanical man

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The 1715 Spanish Plate Fleet

Disaster on the Treasure Coast

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Autogyro

Taking the proto-helicopter for a spin

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Emperor Norton

Monarch of San Francisco

When someone refers to my hometown as “San Fran,” I really bristle. People who live in other parts of the world may think “San Francisco” has too many syllables, but locals don’t ever call it “San Fran.” Ever. And only in an effort to be intentionally gauche or ironic would a resident call it “Frisco.” That’s just wrong, and it immediately identifies anyone who says it as clueless. This judgment goes way, way back. A century and a half ago, by the emperor’s decree, calling the city “Frisco” was a high misdemeanor punishable by a $25 fine.

Today’s interesting “thing” is ostensibly a person, though in fact it’s more of a concept: the notion that someone could declare himself to be an emperor, and—without any force or intimidation—actually get an entire city to go along with the fantasy, at least superficially, for more than 20 years. I am speaking of one of San Francisco’s most colorful historical figures: Joshua A. Norton, a.k.a. His Imperial Majesty Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Coin Tossing

Putting a new spin on randomness

In high school, I read Tom Stoppard’s 1967 play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, a hilarious take on the lives of two minor (and more or less interchangeable) characters from Hamlet. A lot of the dialog has to do with the philosophical question of destiny. At the beginning of the play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are tossing coins, and incredibly, 100 consecutive spins come up heads until a “lucky” toss finally comes up tails. This nicely illustrates the futility of the characters’ actions and also puts them squarely in some alternative reality—we all know that in the real world, coin tosses are random and couldn’t possibly come up heads 100 times in a row. We depend on this fact; otherwise, all the bets and disagreements that have been settled by this simple selection mechanism must be in doubt.

When I wrote about rock, paper, scissors tournaments, I made a passing reference to my favorite “binary random number generator,” a coin toss. A reader sent me a note saying that wasn’t quite accurate—coin tosses are not truly random. Talk about shaking the foundations of my faith. What insidious conspiracy could be behind this astonishing claim? Or could it simply be that a bunch of statisticians had entirely too much time on their hands? [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Breathing Liquid

The frontiers of human respiration

It’s funny the way random little factoids stick in my head, even after many years. When I was in eighth grade, I did a report for my science class on Pascal’s Law, a description of the way fluids behave in a closed system (and the basis of all hydraulics, among other things). And in the course of researching that project I came across a tiny piece of information that blew my 13-year-old mind: the word fluid is not a synonym of liquid; a fluid can be a liquid or a gas. Really? I’ve been breathing a fluid all my life? I just couldn’t get over it. Neither could my friends—I thought my endless recitations of trivia made me look smarter, but they found it annoying.

Years later, I read a Star Trek novel in which the crew of the Enterprise encountered a race of humanoid beings who breathed a liquid; the book went to great lengths to describe what that experience was like for one of the humans who had to interact with them. Although this fictional liquid was compatible with human lungs, the psychological shock of breathing a liquid was pretty intense. Later still, the very same concept showed up in the 1989 film The Abyss. But hey, that’s all just science fiction, right? Amazingly enough, humans can indeed breathe certain very special liquids. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Bee Venom Therapy

A stinging endorsement

My experience may be exceptional, but I’ve found the several bee stings I’ve received over the years to be rather unpleasant—even after remembering my favorite things, I still felt pretty bad. So when a reader wrote to tell me about a treatment for such conditions as arthritis and multiple sclerosis (MS) that involves voluntarily stinging oneself with bees, I must admit I found the whole idea rather creepy and off-putting. Although this alternative therapy has not yet proven itself in widespread clinical trials, quite a few people swear by it, insisting that the benefits far outweigh the pain. And even some doctors are trying it with their patients. I feel obliged to insert the usual “don’t try this at home” and “your mileage may vary” disclaimers, but though the jury is officially still out, an increasing body of evidence suggests that there just may be something to this weird notion after all.

A Little Jab’ll Do Ya
Numerous poisons can—in small enough quantities and under the right conditions—produce beneficial effects. So it’s entirely plausible that the same is true of bee venom, or at least some of its components, even though its main purpose is to protect the bees by inflicting pain. Bee venom therapy is a subset of apitherapy, the medicinal use of any substances created by honeybees—including royal jelly and honey, each of which is already known to have some health benefits. Researchers have discovered a number of very interesting substances in bee venom—most prominently, melittin, a powerful anti-inflammatory agent. This gives some credence to the anecdotal reports that beekeepers who were stung repeatedly experienced a reduction in the pain and swelling of arthritis. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Tree Tumbo

Mystery plant of the desert

A couple of years ago, I began noticing that our home could use some brightening up, and I thought it might be a good idea to buy a few houseplants. But I’ve never done well with plants. I even managed to kill off several cacti, despite my best efforts. So I walked into a local plant store and asked what they had that could survive under my care. The owner assured me that African violets would be a safe choice. I said, “But no, really…flowers hate me. In fact, most plants run and hide when they see me coming.” But after listening to detailed instructions, I finally agreed that I could probably care for just this one small potted plant successfully. I found one with flowers just the right shade and took it home. Well, the good news is that the plant is still alive. The bad news is that its condition gives all new meaning to the expression “persistent vegetative state,” if you know what I mean. It hasn’t flowered in eons, some of its droopy leaves are a sickly shade of yellow, and it’s clearly hanging on simply to emphasize its ongoing contempt for me. My most sincere intentions notwithstanding, I just can’t seem to keep plants healthy.

When I saw pictures of a plant called Welwitschia mirabilis (also known by such names as “tree tumbo” or “onion of the desert”) it looked very much like it could have been a previously beautiful specimen that had the misfortune of spending a season or two in my yard. In other words, it looked pretty sick and ugly. But appearances, in this case, are deceiving. This incredibly odd and unattractive plant can thrive in extraordinarily inhospitable conditions—and that’s just the start. The tree tumbo is without a doubt one of the world’s oddest plants. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Optical Painters' Aids

A matter of perspective

Although I like to think of myself as a multitalented “Renaissance man” of sorts, I must admit that when it comes to drawing and painting, I have absolutely no ability. I’m truly pitiful at Pictionary, and I couldn’t paint my way out of a paper bag. Or so I’ve always thought. Based on what I’ve been reading lately, I could probably produce some fantastic art from the inside of a very large paper bag, as long as it had a pinhole on one side and pretty bright light outside. All I’d have to do is trace the image projected by this primitive camera obscura. According to a controversial theory, this technique—or something very much like it—gave some world-renowned artists a little help as far back as 1420. Then again…maybe not. Getting to the bottom of this puzzle has been the consuming passion of quite a few artists, historians, and optical engineers over the past several years.

Without a Trace
Tracing over a projected image is a straightforward notion, but if you’ve ever tried it (as I have) you probably discovered that getting good results is not as easy as it sounds. The easy part is getting the proportions right. But lots of things in any image lack well-defined borders, and trying to make sense of textures and the effects of light and shadow while tracing something is quite a complex undertaking. If, instead of tracing, I were painting, the challenge would become even greater, as I’d have to carefully match gradations in color—and as soon as I applied a dark paint to the light surface, the image in that area would virtually disappear. All that to say: projection or no projection, producing a convincingly realistic drawing or painting takes a lot of skill and practice. So if it turned out that one of the great masters from centuries ago really did pull this off, I’d be no less impressed by the final product—and more impressed by the artist’s cleverness. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Milgram Obedience Experiments

Just following orders

As a teenager, I never thought of myself as someone who had a problem with authority. I may not have liked what I was being told to do, and I may have complained, but it was not in my nature to say no. I had my first crisis of authority when I was 16. I was learning to drive, and I’d already failed my driving test—twice. (The first time, I couldn’t parallel park and I ran into a cone; the second time, I didn’t come to a complete stop at a stop sign.) After several more weeks of practicing and diligently studying the driver’s manual, I was taking my third and final test. If I failed that, I’d have to apply for a learner’s permit all over again and endure embarrassing months of being the only person my age without a license. So the pressure was on. With the examiner, a police officer, in the passenger’s seat and sweat on my brow, I carefully completed the entire course—and I thought I did well.

At the very end, the officer told me to pull over at a certain spot and park the car. And I had a moment of complete panic: the spot he’d indicated was just a few feet from a stop sign, and I remembered from the driver’s manual that it was illegal to park so close. Was this one last test? If I obeyed, I thought, I could be failed for breaking the law. So I hesitated and said, “Isn’t that too close to the stop sign?” The officer became furious and started berating me for my arrogance, reminding me that the manual said, “…unless directed otherwise by a uniformed officer of the law.” Tugging at his sleeve, he ranted, “What does this look like, my pajamas?” He went on and on until I was about ready to shrivel up and die, but in the end, he passed me anyway. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

InterPlay

Getting grown-ups back into their bodies

There’s an old joke that I’ve heard attributed, in one form or another, to numerous religious groups. It goes: “Why do Baptists (or Methodists, or Mennonites, or Jews, or whatever) prohibit premarital sex? Because it could lead to dancing.” The implication, obviously, is that the group’s taboo against dancing is so strong that it overshadows the moral principle that gave rise to it in the first place; dancing becomes not just a potential path to evil but an evil in and of itself. One of the theological views that sometimes motivates this position is that the body (or “flesh”) is inherently sinful or corrupt, and must be ruthlessly subjugated to the purer values of the spirit. This was certainly the view of the religious tradition in which I grew up. Any activity that even suggested carnal pleasure outside strictly delimited boundaries was an immoral concession to humanity’s fallen nature.

Although this sort of thinking may be an extreme example, it’s indicative of a broader and older cultural trend, which some people refer to as the “mind-body split.” Whether you trace this trend back to Cartesian dualism, the early days of Christianity, or some other source, it amounts to a belief that the body is somehow an ontologically separate entity from the mind (or “soul,” or “spirit”). Perhaps the two are even in competition or conflict with each other. Even if, as adults, we recognize that by implicitly accepting this split we’ve become disintegrated and unbalanced, it’s difficult to reprogram ourselves to recover that sense of being a single, unified whole. A practice called InterPlay exists to encourage that process by helping people to rediscover and express one of their most basic, primal needs: play. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Parkour

Turning a city into an obstacle course

When I began studying t’ai chi almost 10 years ago, one of my reasons for doing so was a desire to learn how to move more gracefully and meaningfully. I thought (correctly, as it turned out) that t’ai chi would be a safe, interesting, and enjoyable way to learn what it feels like to move intentionally and become more aware of my posture, balance, and physical interactions with my environment.

When I first read about a sport (or art or activity) called parkour, the philosophy behind it sounded very similar: an emphasis on fluid, elegant, graceful motions. But in practice, parkour is about as different from t’ai chi as I can imagine. It’s sometimes considered an “extreme” sport; as its participants dash around a city, they may vault over fences, run up walls, and even jump from rooftop to rooftop. So you won’t see senior citizens doing it in the park on Sunday mornings, but if you do witness it, you may think you’re watching a stunt person on a movie set. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Operation Migration

Follow that airplane!

The exact techniques migrating birds use to find their way across thousands of miles to exactly the same spots year after year are only partially understood. Watching for landmarks is clearly part of it—but equally clearly, it’s not the whole story. Certain types of birds have been shown to rely only minimally on vision, in some cases apparently getting their bearings from the Earth’s magnetic field. Be that as it may, some bird species have strong migratory instincts, while others (including geese, ducks, and cranes) must be taught the way to and from their winter homes. A single demonstration is enough to program the route into a bird’s memory, but what happens when a bird never gets that first demonstration? It has no idea where to go, and as a result, its survival is threatened if it can’t find enough food when the seasons change.

This situation poses a unique problem for certain birds raised in captivity, such as the whooping crane (Grus americana)—the tallest flying bird in North America, with a height of up to 5 feet (about 1.5m) and a wingspan as wide as 8 feet (about 2.5m). By the middle of the 20th century, the worldwide population of wild whooping cranes had dipped to only 15, bringing the species perilously close to extinction. (A century earlier, there had been about 1,400 of them—and even that was a dangerously small number.) As a result of diligent conservation efforts, those few remaining birds were protected in the wild, and their numbers gradually began to increase; today, that flock numbers about 200. Meanwhile, some of their eggs were hatched in captivity to breed a “backup” flock, in case some natural disaster (such as a hurricane) wiped out the others. After several years of careful breeding and release, a non-migratory flock of nearly 100 is now living in Florida. However, what everyone wanted to see was the reestablishment of another migratory flock—a group of whooping cranes that spent their summers in Wisconsin and their winters in Florida, just as other flocks had done decades earlier. But although the birds could be bred and released successfully, there was no apparent way to teach them a safe way to fly from one home to the other. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Portmanteau

When words intertwingle

One of the great things about language—any language, but I’m thinking especially of English—is how badly you can mangle it and still be understood. All spoken language has a certain amount of built-in redundancy, so you can figure out, for example, what would have come at the end of this sentence if I’d bothered to… And the same is true at the level of individual words. If I say “gonna” instead of “going to” or “kinda” instead of “kind of,” you’ll still know exactly what I’m trying to say.

What Isn’t in a Word
When I was studying linguistics, I ran across quite a few terms that refer, in one sense or another, to missing sounds (intentional or otherwise). Here are a few examples:

  • contraction: a word formed from two or more other words, as in isn’t from “is not” or it’s from “it has”< [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Passenger Pigeons

The great American extinction

I have a confession to make. Even though my wife, Morgen, is an endless fount of interesting topics, when she suggested that I write about passenger pigeons, my first reaction was a yawn. How interesting can pigeons be? There are bazillions of them out there—I practically trip over them walking down the sidewalk every day. “But passenger pigeons are extinct,” she said. So are lots of animals, and that’s very sad, but it still doesn’t make them particularly interesting to the general public. She kept insisting that no, really, this particular kind of extinct pigeon is truly fascinating, and I kept displaying a complete lack of enthusiasm. Finally, she started reading some facts off a Web page. After the first couple of items, I thought, “Yeah, OK, that’s a bit interesting, but if that’s all there is to it…” Only it wasn’t. She kept reading—and I kept saying “Wow.” Even I had to admit, yes, the story of the passenger pigeon is quite interesting. So by way of penance, allow me to present the poop (as it were) on passenger pigeons.

The last passenger pigeon in the world died less than 100 years ago—in 1914, according to most reports. In fact, we know exactly when and where the species went extinct: Tuesday, September 1, 1914, at 1:00 p.m. Eastern time at the Cincinnati Zoo. We even know the last bird’s name: Martha. She was 29 years old. It’s rather extraordinary that we should have such detailed and precise information about the moment when a species meets its demise—the passenger pigeon is almost certainly unique in that regard. What’s even more extraordinary is that just a century or so earlier, passenger pigeons had been more numerous than any other bird in North America—numbering in the billions. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Leonardo's Robots

Renaissance man meets mechanical man

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The 1715 Spanish Plate Fleet

Disaster on the Treasure Coast

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Autogyro

Taking the proto-helicopter for a spin

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Emperor Norton

Monarch of San Francisco

When someone refers to my hometown as “San Fran,” I really bristle. People who live in other parts of the world may think “San Francisco” has too many syllables, but locals don’t ever call it “San Fran.” Ever. And only in an effort to be intentionally gauche or ironic would a resident call it “Frisco.” That’s just wrong, and it immediately identifies anyone who says it as clueless. This judgment goes way, way back. A century and a half ago, by the emperor’s decree, calling the city “Frisco” was a high misdemeanor punishable by a $25 fine.

Today’s interesting “thing” is ostensibly a person, though in fact it’s more of a concept: the notion that someone could declare himself to be an emperor, and—without any force or intimidation—actually get an entire city to go along with the fantasy, at least superficially, for more than 20 years. I am speaking of one of San Francisco’s most colorful historical figures: Joshua A. Norton, a.k.a. His Imperial Majesty Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Coin Tossing

Putting a new spin on randomness

In high school, I read Tom Stoppard’s 1967 play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, a hilarious take on the lives of two minor (and more or less interchangeable) characters from Hamlet. A lot of the dialog has to do with the philosophical question of destiny. At the beginning of the play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are tossing coins, and incredibly, 100 consecutive spins come up heads until a “lucky” toss finally comes up tails. This nicely illustrates the futility of the characters’ actions and also puts them squarely in some alternative reality—we all know that in the real world, coin tosses are random and couldn’t possibly come up heads 100 times in a row. We depend on this fact; otherwise, all the bets and disagreements that have been settled by this simple selection mechanism must be in doubt.

When I wrote about rock, paper, scissors tournaments, I made a passing reference to my favorite “binary random number generator,” a coin toss. A reader sent me a note saying that wasn’t quite accurate—coin tosses are not truly random. Talk about shaking the foundations of my faith. What insidious conspiracy could be behind this astonishing claim? Or could it simply be that a bunch of statisticians had entirely too much time on their hands? [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Breathing Liquid

The frontiers of human respiration

It’s funny the way random little factoids stick in my head, even after many years. When I was in eighth grade, I did a report for my science class on Pascal’s Law, a description of the way fluids behave in a closed system (and the basis of all hydraulics, among other things). And in the course of researching that project I came across a tiny piece of information that blew my 13-year-old mind: the word fluid is not a synonym of liquid; a fluid can be a liquid or a gas. Really? I’ve been breathing a fluid all my life? I just couldn’t get over it. Neither could my friends—I thought my endless recitations of trivia made me look smarter, but they found it annoying.

Years later, I read a Star Trek novel in which the crew of the Enterprise encountered a race of humanoid beings who breathed a liquid; the book went to great lengths to describe what that experience was like for one of the humans who had to interact with them. Although this fictional liquid was compatible with human lungs, the psychological shock of breathing a liquid was pretty intense. Later still, the very same concept showed up in the 1989 film The Abyss. But hey, that’s all just science fiction, right? Amazingly enough, humans can indeed breathe certain very special liquids. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Bee Venom Therapy

A stinging endorsement

My experience may be exceptional, but I’ve found the several bee stings I’ve received over the years to be rather unpleasant—even after remembering my favorite things, I still felt pretty bad. So when a reader wrote to tell me about a treatment for such conditions as arthritis and multiple sclerosis (MS) that involves voluntarily stinging oneself with bees, I must admit I found the whole idea rather creepy and off-putting. Although this alternative therapy has not yet proven itself in widespread clinical trials, quite a few people swear by it, insisting that the benefits far outweigh the pain. And even some doctors are trying it with their patients. I feel obliged to insert the usual “don’t try this at home” and “your mileage may vary” disclaimers, but though the jury is officially still out, an increasing body of evidence suggests that there just may be something to this weird notion after all.

A Little Jab’ll Do Ya
Numerous poisons can—in small enough quantities and under the right conditions—produce beneficial effects. So it’s entirely plausible that the same is true of bee venom, or at least some of its components, even though its main purpose is to protect the bees by inflicting pain. Bee venom therapy is a subset of apitherapy, the medicinal use of any substances created by honeybees—including royal jelly and honey, each of which is already known to have some health benefits. Researchers have discovered a number of very interesting substances in bee venom—most prominently, melittin, a powerful anti-inflammatory agent. This gives some credence to the anecdotal reports that beekeepers who were stung repeatedly experienced a reduction in the pain and swelling of arthritis. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Tree Tumbo

Mystery plant of the desert

A couple of years ago, I began noticing that our home could use some brightening up, and I thought it might be a good idea to buy a few houseplants. But I’ve never done well with plants. I even managed to kill off several cacti, despite my best efforts. So I walked into a local plant store and asked what they had that could survive under my care. The owner assured me that African violets would be a safe choice. I said, “But no, really…flowers hate me. In fact, most plants run and hide when they see me coming.” But after listening to detailed instructions, I finally agreed that I could probably care for just this one small potted plant successfully. I found one with flowers just the right shade and took it home. Well, the good news is that the plant is still alive. The bad news is that its condition gives all new meaning to the expression “persistent vegetative state,” if you know what I mean. It hasn’t flowered in eons, some of its droopy leaves are a sickly shade of yellow, and it’s clearly hanging on simply to emphasize its ongoing contempt for me. My most sincere intentions notwithstanding, I just can’t seem to keep plants healthy.

When I saw pictures of a plant called Welwitschia mirabilis (also known by such names as “tree tumbo” or “onion of the desert”) it looked very much like it could have been a previously beautiful specimen that had the misfortune of spending a season or two in my yard. In other words, it looked pretty sick and ugly. But appearances, in this case, are deceiving. This incredibly odd and unattractive plant can thrive in extraordinarily inhospitable conditions—and that’s just the start. The tree tumbo is without a doubt one of the world’s oddest plants. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Optical Painters' Aids

A matter of perspective

Although I like to think of myself as a multitalented “Renaissance man” of sorts, I must admit that when it comes to drawing and painting, I have absolutely no ability. I’m truly pitiful at Pictionary, and I couldn’t paint my way out of a paper bag. Or so I’ve always thought. Based on what I’ve been reading lately, I could probably produce some fantastic art from the inside of a very large paper bag, as long as it had a pinhole on one side and pretty bright light outside. All I’d have to do is trace the image projected by this primitive camera obscura. According to a controversial theory, this technique—or something very much like it—gave some world-renowned artists a little help as far back as 1420. Then again…maybe not. Getting to the bottom of this puzzle has been the consuming passion of quite a few artists, historians, and optical engineers over the past several years.

Without a Trace
Tracing over a projected image is a straightforward notion, but if you’ve ever tried it (as I have) you probably discovered that getting good results is not as easy as it sounds. The easy part is getting the proportions right. But lots of things in any image lack well-defined borders, and trying to make sense of textures and the effects of light and shadow while tracing something is quite a complex undertaking. If, instead of tracing, I were painting, the challenge would become even greater, as I’d have to carefully match gradations in color—and as soon as I applied a dark paint to the light surface, the image in that area would virtually disappear. All that to say: projection or no projection, producing a convincingly realistic drawing or painting takes a lot of skill and practice. So if it turned out that one of the great masters from centuries ago really did pull this off, I’d be no less impressed by the final product—and more impressed by the artist’s cleverness. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Milgram Obedience Experiments

Just following orders

As a teenager, I never thought of myself as someone who had a problem with authority. I may not have liked what I was being told to do, and I may have complained, but it was not in my nature to say no. I had my first crisis of authority when I was 16. I was learning to drive, and I’d already failed my driving test—twice. (The first time, I couldn’t parallel park and I ran into a cone; the second time, I didn’t come to a complete stop at a stop sign.) After several more weeks of practicing and diligently studying the driver’s manual, I was taking my third and final test. If I failed that, I’d have to apply for a learner’s permit all over again and endure embarrassing months of being the only person my age without a license. So the pressure was on. With the examiner, a police officer, in the passenger’s seat and sweat on my brow, I carefully completed the entire course—and I thought I did well.

At the very end, the officer told me to pull over at a certain spot and park the car. And I had a moment of complete panic: the spot he’d indicated was just a few feet from a stop sign, and I remembered from the driver’s manual that it was illegal to park so close. Was this one last test? If I obeyed, I thought, I could be failed for breaking the law. So I hesitated and said, “Isn’t that too close to the stop sign?” The officer became furious and started berating me for my arrogance, reminding me that the manual said, “…unless directed otherwise by a uniformed officer of the law.” Tugging at his sleeve, he ranted, “What does this look like, my pajamas?” He went on and on until I was about ready to shrivel up and die, but in the end, he passed me anyway. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

InterPlay

Getting grown-ups back into their bodies

There’s an old joke that I’ve heard attributed, in one form or another, to numerous religious groups. It goes: “Why do Baptists (or Methodists, or Mennonites, or Jews, or whatever) prohibit premarital sex? Because it could lead to dancing.” The implication, obviously, is that the group’s taboo against dancing is so strong that it overshadows the moral principle that gave rise to it in the first place; dancing becomes not just a potential path to evil but an evil in and of itself. One of the theological views that sometimes motivates this position is that the body (or “flesh”) is inherently sinful or corrupt, and must be ruthlessly subjugated to the purer values of the spirit. This was certainly the view of the religious tradition in which I grew up. Any activity that even suggested carnal pleasure outside strictly delimited boundaries was an immoral concession to humanity’s fallen nature.

Although this sort of thinking may be an extreme example, it’s indicative of a broader and older cultural trend, which some people refer to as the “mind-body split.” Whether you trace this trend back to Cartesian dualism, the early days of Christianity, or some other source, it amounts to a belief that the body is somehow an ontologically separate entity from the mind (or “soul,” or “spirit”). Perhaps the two are even in competition or conflict with each other. Even if, as adults, we recognize that by implicitly accepting this split we’ve become disintegrated and unbalanced, it’s difficult to reprogram ourselves to recover that sense of being a single, unified whole. A practice called InterPlay exists to encourage that process by helping people to rediscover and express one of their most basic, primal needs: play. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Parkour

Turning a city into an obstacle course

When I began studying t’ai chi almost 10 years ago, one of my reasons for doing so was a desire to learn how to move more gracefully and meaningfully. I thought (correctly, as it turned out) that t’ai chi would be a safe, interesting, and enjoyable way to learn what it feels like to move intentionally and become more aware of my posture, balance, and physical interactions with my environment.

When I first read about a sport (or art or activity) called parkour, the philosophy behind it sounded very similar: an emphasis on fluid, elegant, graceful motions. But in practice, parkour is about as different from t’ai chi as I can imagine. It’s sometimes considered an “extreme” sport; as its participants dash around a city, they may vault over fences, run up walls, and even jump from rooftop to rooftop. So you won’t see senior citizens doing it in the park on Sunday mornings, but if you do witness it, you may think you’re watching a stunt person on a movie set. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Operation Migration

Follow that airplane!

The exact techniques migrating birds use to find their way across thousands of miles to exactly the same spots year after year are only partially understood. Watching for landmarks is clearly part of it—but equally clearly, it’s not the whole story. Certain types of birds have been shown to rely only minimally on vision, in some cases apparently getting their bearings from the Earth’s magnetic field. Be that as it may, some bird species have strong migratory instincts, while others (including geese, ducks, and cranes) must be taught the way to and from their winter homes. A single demonstration is enough to program the route into a bird’s memory, but what happens when a bird never gets that first demonstration? It has no idea where to go, and as a result, its survival is threatened if it can’t find enough food when the seasons change.

This situation poses a unique problem for certain birds raised in captivity, such as the whooping crane (Grus americana)—the tallest flying bird in North America, with a height of up to 5 feet (about 1.5m) and a wingspan as wide as 8 feet (about 2.5m). By the middle of the 20th century, the worldwide population of wild whooping cranes had dipped to only 15, bringing the species perilously close to extinction. (A century earlier, there had been about 1,400 of them—and even that was a dangerously small number.) As a result of diligent conservation efforts, those few remaining birds were protected in the wild, and their numbers gradually began to increase; today, that flock numbers about 200. Meanwhile, some of their eggs were hatched in captivity to breed a “backup” flock, in case some natural disaster (such as a hurricane) wiped out the others. After several years of careful breeding and release, a non-migratory flock of nearly 100 is now living in Florida. However, what everyone wanted to see was the reestablishment of another migratory flock—a group of whooping cranes that spent their summers in Wisconsin and their winters in Florida, just as other flocks had done decades earlier. But although the birds could be bred and released successfully, there was no apparent way to teach them a safe way to fly from one home to the other. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Portmanteau

When words intertwingle

One of the great things about language—any language, but I’m thinking especially of English—is how badly you can mangle it and still be understood. All spoken language has a certain amount of built-in redundancy, so you can figure out, for example, what would have come at the end of this sentence if I’d bothered to… And the same is true at the level of individual words. If I say “gonna” instead of “going to” or “kinda” instead of “kind of,” you’ll still know exactly what I’m trying to say.

What Isn’t in a Word
When I was studying linguistics, I ran across quite a few terms that refer, in one sense or another, to missing sounds (intentional or otherwise). Here are a few examples:

  • contraction: a word formed from two or more other words, as in isn’t from “is not” or it’s from “it has”< [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Passenger Pigeons

The great American extinction

I have a confession to make. Even though my wife, Morgen, is an endless fount of interesting topics, when she suggested that I write about passenger pigeons, my first reaction was a yawn. How interesting can pigeons be? There are bazillions of them out there—I practically trip over them walking down the sidewalk every day. “But passenger pigeons are extinct,” she said. So are lots of animals, and that’s very sad, but it still doesn’t make them particularly interesting to the general public. She kept insisting that no, really, this particular kind of extinct pigeon is truly fascinating, and I kept displaying a complete lack of enthusiasm. Finally, she started reading some facts off a Web page. After the first couple of items, I thought, “Yeah, OK, that’s a bit interesting, but if that’s all there is to it…” Only it wasn’t. She kept reading—and I kept saying “Wow.” Even I had to admit, yes, the story of the passenger pigeon is quite interesting. So by way of penance, allow me to present the poop (as it were) on passenger pigeons.

The last passenger pigeon in the world died less than 100 years ago—in 1914, according to most reports. In fact, we know exactly when and where the species went extinct: Tuesday, September 1, 1914, at 1:00 p.m. Eastern time at the Cincinnati Zoo. We even know the last bird’s name: Martha. She was 29 years old. It’s rather extraordinary that we should have such detailed and precise information about the moment when a species meets its demise—the passenger pigeon is almost certainly unique in that regard. What’s even more extraordinary is that just a century or so earlier, passenger pigeons had been more numerous than any other bird in North America—numbering in the billions. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Leonardo's Robots

Renaissance man meets mechanical man

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The 1715 Spanish Plate Fleet

Disaster on the Treasure Coast

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Autogyro

Taking the proto-helicopter for a spin

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Emperor Norton

Monarch of San Francisco

When someone refers to my hometown as “San Fran,” I really bristle. People who live in other parts of the world may think “San Francisco” has too many syllables, but locals don’t ever call it “San Fran.” Ever. And only in an effort to be intentionally gauche or ironic would a resident call it “Frisco.” That’s just wrong, and it immediately identifies anyone who says it as clueless. This judgment goes way, way back. A century and a half ago, by the emperor’s decree, calling the city “Frisco” was a high misdemeanor punishable by a $25 fine.

Today’s interesting “thing” is ostensibly a person, though in fact it’s more of a concept: the notion that someone could declare himself to be an emperor, and—without any force or intimidation—actually get an entire city to go along with the fantasy, at least superficially, for more than 20 years. I am speaking of one of San Francisco’s most colorful historical figures: Joshua A. Norton, a.k.a. His Imperial Majesty Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Coin Tossing

Putting a new spin on randomness

In high school, I read Tom Stoppard’s 1967 play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, a hilarious take on the lives of two minor (and more or less interchangeable) characters from Hamlet. A lot of the dialog has to do with the philosophical question of destiny. At the beginning of the play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are tossing coins, and incredibly, 100 consecutive spins come up heads until a “lucky” toss finally comes up tails. This nicely illustrates the futility of the characters’ actions and also puts them squarely in some alternative reality—we all know that in the real world, coin tosses are random and couldn’t possibly come up heads 100 times in a row. We depend on this fact; otherwise, all the bets and disagreements that have been settled by this simple selection mechanism must be in doubt.

When I wrote about rock, paper, scissors tournaments, I made a passing reference to my favorite “binary random number generator,” a coin toss. A reader sent me a note saying that wasn’t quite accurate—coin tosses are not truly random. Talk about shaking the foundations of my faith. What insidious conspiracy could be behind this astonishing claim? Or could it simply be that a bunch of statisticians had entirely too much time on their hands? [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Breathing Liquid

The frontiers of human respiration

It’s funny the way random little factoids stick in my head, even after many years. When I was in eighth grade, I did a report for my science class on Pascal’s Law, a description of the way fluids behave in a closed system (and the basis of all hydraulics, among other things). And in the course of researching that project I came across a tiny piece of information that blew my 13-year-old mind: the word fluid is not a synonym of liquid; a fluid can be a liquid or a gas. Really? I’ve been breathing a fluid all my life? I just couldn’t get over it. Neither could my friends—I thought my endless recitations of trivia made me look smarter, but they found it annoying.

Years later, I read a Star Trek novel in which the crew of the Enterprise encountered a race of humanoid beings who breathed a liquid; the book went to great lengths to describe what that experience was like for one of the humans who had to interact with them. Although this fictional liquid was compatible with human lungs, the psychological shock of breathing a liquid was pretty intense. Later still, the very same concept showed up in the 1989 film The Abyss. But hey, that’s all just science fiction, right? Amazingly enough, humans can indeed breathe certain very special liquids. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Bee Venom Therapy

A stinging endorsement

My experience may be exceptional, but I’ve found the several bee stings I’ve received over the years to be rather unpleasant—even after remembering my favorite things, I still felt pretty bad. So when a reader wrote to tell me about a treatment for such conditions as arthritis and multiple sclerosis (MS) that involves voluntarily stinging oneself with bees, I must admit I found the whole idea rather creepy and off-putting. Although this alternative therapy has not yet proven itself in widespread clinical trials, quite a few people swear by it, insisting that the benefits far outweigh the pain. And even some doctors are trying it with their patients. I feel obliged to insert the usual “don’t try this at home” and “your mileage may vary” disclaimers, but though the jury is officially still out, an increasing body of evidence suggests that there just may be something to this weird notion after all.

A Little Jab’ll Do Ya
Numerous poisons can—in small enough quantities and under the right conditions—produce beneficial effects. So it’s entirely plausible that the same is true of bee venom, or at least some of its components, even though its main purpose is to protect the bees by inflicting pain. Bee venom therapy is a subset of apitherapy, the medicinal use of any substances created by honeybees—including royal jelly and honey, each of which is already known to have some health benefits. Researchers have discovered a number of very interesting substances in bee venom—most prominently, melittin, a powerful anti-inflammatory agent. This gives some credence to the anecdotal reports that beekeepers who were stung repeatedly experienced a reduction in the pain and swelling of arthritis. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Tree Tumbo

Mystery plant of the desert

A couple of years ago, I began noticing that our home could use some brightening up, and I thought it might be a good idea to buy a few houseplants. But I’ve never done well with plants. I even managed to kill off several cacti, despite my best efforts. So I walked into a local plant store and asked what they had that could survive under my care. The owner assured me that African violets would be a safe choice. I said, “But no, really…flowers hate me. In fact, most plants run and hide when they see me coming.” But after listening to detailed instructions, I finally agreed that I could probably care for just this one small potted plant successfully. I found one with flowers just the right shade and took it home. Well, the good news is that the plant is still alive. The bad news is that its condition gives all new meaning to the expression “persistent vegetative state,” if you know what I mean. It hasn’t flowered in eons, some of its droopy leaves are a sickly shade of yellow, and it’s clearly hanging on simply to emphasize its ongoing contempt for me. My most sincere intentions notwithstanding, I just can’t seem to keep plants healthy.

When I saw pictures of a plant called Welwitschia mirabilis (also known by such names as “tree tumbo” or “onion of the desert”) it looked very much like it could have been a previously beautiful specimen that had the misfortune of spending a season or two in my yard. In other words, it looked pretty sick and ugly. But appearances, in this case, are deceiving. This incredibly odd and unattractive plant can thrive in extraordinarily inhospitable conditions—and that’s just the start. The tree tumbo is without a doubt one of the world’s oddest plants. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Optical Painters' Aids

A matter of perspective

Although I like to think of myself as a multitalented “Renaissance man” of sorts, I must admit that when it comes to drawing and painting, I have absolutely no ability. I’m truly pitiful at Pictionary, and I couldn’t paint my way out of a paper bag. Or so I’ve always thought. Based on what I’ve been reading lately, I could probably produce some fantastic art from the inside of a very large paper bag, as long as it had a pinhole on one side and pretty bright light outside. All I’d have to do is trace the image projected by this primitive camera obscura. According to a controversial theory, this technique—or something very much like it—gave some world-renowned artists a little help as far back as 1420. Then again…maybe not. Getting to the bottom of this puzzle has been the consuming passion of quite a few artists, historians, and optical engineers over the past several years.

Without a Trace
Tracing over a projected image is a straightforward notion, but if you’ve ever tried it (as I have) you probably discovered that getting good results is not as easy as it sounds. The easy part is getting the proportions right. But lots of things in any image lack well-defined borders, and trying to make sense of textures and the effects of light and shadow while tracing something is quite a complex undertaking. If, instead of tracing, I were painting, the challenge would become even greater, as I’d have to carefully match gradations in color—and as soon as I applied a dark paint to the light surface, the image in that area would virtually disappear. All that to say: projection or no projection, producing a convincingly realistic drawing or painting takes a lot of skill and practice. So if it turned out that one of the great masters from centuries ago really did pull this off, I’d be no less impressed by the final product—and more impressed by the artist’s cleverness. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Milgram Obedience Experiments

Just following orders

As a teenager, I never thought of myself as someone who had a problem with authority. I may not have liked what I was being told to do, and I may have complained, but it was not in my nature to say no. I had my first crisis of authority when I was 16. I was learning to drive, and I’d already failed my driving test—twice. (The first time, I couldn’t parallel park and I ran into a cone; the second time, I didn’t come to a complete stop at a stop sign.) After several more weeks of practicing and diligently studying the driver’s manual, I was taking my third and final test. If I failed that, I’d have to apply for a learner’s permit all over again and endure embarrassing months of being the only person my age without a license. So the pressure was on. With the examiner, a police officer, in the passenger’s seat and sweat on my brow, I carefully completed the entire course—and I thought I did well.

At the very end, the officer told me to pull over at a certain spot and park the car. And I had a moment of complete panic: the spot he’d indicated was just a few feet from a stop sign, and I remembered from the driver’s manual that it was illegal to park so close. Was this one last test? If I obeyed, I thought, I could be failed for breaking the law. So I hesitated and said, “Isn’t that too close to the stop sign?” The officer became furious and started berating me for my arrogance, reminding me that the manual said, “…unless directed otherwise by a uniformed officer of the law.” Tugging at his sleeve, he ranted, “What does this look like, my pajamas?” He went on and on until I was about ready to shrivel up and die, but in the end, he passed me anyway. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

InterPlay

Getting grown-ups back into their bodies

There’s an old joke that I’ve heard attributed, in one form or another, to numerous religious groups. It goes: “Why do Baptists (or Methodists, or Mennonites, or Jews, or whatever) prohibit premarital sex? Because it could lead to dancing.” The implication, obviously, is that the group’s taboo against dancing is so strong that it overshadows the moral principle that gave rise to it in the first place; dancing becomes not just a potential path to evil but an evil in and of itself. One of the theological views that sometimes motivates this position is that the body (or “flesh”) is inherently sinful or corrupt, and must be ruthlessly subjugated to the purer values of the spirit. This was certainly the view of the religious tradition in which I grew up. Any activity that even suggested carnal pleasure outside strictly delimited boundaries was an immoral concession to humanity’s fallen nature.

Although this sort of thinking may be an extreme example, it’s indicative of a broader and older cultural trend, which some people refer to as the “mind-body split.” Whether you trace this trend back to Cartesian dualism, the early days of Christianity, or some other source, it amounts to a belief that the body is somehow an ontologically separate entity from the mind (or “soul,” or “spirit”). Perhaps the two are even in competition or conflict with each other. Even if, as adults, we recognize that by implicitly accepting this split we’ve become disintegrated and unbalanced, it’s difficult to reprogram ourselves to recover that sense of being a single, unified whole. A practice called InterPlay exists to encourage that process by helping people to rediscover and express one of their most basic, primal needs: play. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Parkour

Turning a city into an obstacle course

When I began studying t’ai chi almost 10 years ago, one of my reasons for doing so was a desire to learn how to move more gracefully and meaningfully. I thought (correctly, as it turned out) that t’ai chi would be a safe, interesting, and enjoyable way to learn what it feels like to move intentionally and become more aware of my posture, balance, and physical interactions with my environment.

When I first read about a sport (or art or activity) called parkour, the philosophy behind it sounded very similar: an emphasis on fluid, elegant, graceful motions. But in practice, parkour is about as different from t’ai chi as I can imagine. It’s sometimes considered an “extreme” sport; as its participants dash around a city, they may vault over fences, run up walls, and even jump from rooftop to rooftop. So you won’t see senior citizens doing it in the park on Sunday mornings, but if you do witness it, you may think you’re watching a stunt person on a movie set. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Operation Migration

Follow that airplane!

The exact techniques migrating birds use to find their way across thousands of miles to exactly the same spots year after year are only partially understood. Watching for landmarks is clearly part of it—but equally clearly, it’s not the whole story. Certain types of birds have been shown to rely only minimally on vision, in some cases apparently getting their bearings from the Earth’s magnetic field. Be that as it may, some bird species have strong migratory instincts, while others (including geese, ducks, and cranes) must be taught the way to and from their winter homes. A single demonstration is enough to program the route into a bird’s memory, but what happens when a bird never gets that first demonstration? It has no idea where to go, and as a result, its survival is threatened if it can’t find enough food when the seasons change.

This situation poses a unique problem for certain birds raised in captivity, such as the whooping crane (Grus americana)—the tallest flying bird in North America, with a height of up to 5 feet (about 1.5m) and a wingspan as wide as 8 feet (about 2.5m). By the middle of the 20th century, the worldwide population of wild whooping cranes had dipped to only 15, bringing the species perilously close to extinction. (A century earlier, there had been about 1,400 of them—and even that was a dangerously small number.) As a result of diligent conservation efforts, those few remaining birds were protected in the wild, and their numbers gradually began to increase; today, that flock numbers about 200. Meanwhile, some of their eggs were hatched in captivity to breed a “backup” flock, in case some natural disaster (such as a hurricane) wiped out the others. After several years of careful breeding and release, a non-migratory flock of nearly 100 is now living in Florida. However, what everyone wanted to see was the reestablishment of another migratory flock—a group of whooping cranes that spent their summers in Wisconsin and their winters in Florida, just as other flocks had done decades earlier. But although the birds could be bred and released successfully, there was no apparent way to teach them a safe way to fly from one home to the other. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Portmanteau

When words intertwingle

One of the great things about language—any language, but I’m thinking especially of English—is how badly you can mangle it and still be understood. All spoken language has a certain amount of built-in redundancy, so you can figure out, for example, what would have come at the end of this sentence if I’d bothered to… And the same is true at the level of individual words. If I say “gonna” instead of “going to” or “kinda” instead of “kind of,” you’ll still know exactly what I’m trying to say.

What Isn’t in a Word
When I was studying linguistics, I ran across quite a few terms that refer, in one sense or another, to missing sounds (intentional or otherwise). Here are a few examples:

  • contraction: a word formed from two or more other words, as in isn’t from “is not” or it’s from “it has”< [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Passenger Pigeons

The great American extinction

I have a confession to make. Even though my wife, Morgen, is an endless fount of interesting topics, when she suggested that I write about passenger pigeons, my first reaction was a yawn. How interesting can pigeons be? There are bazillions of them out there—I practically trip over them walking down the sidewalk every day. “But passenger pigeons are extinct,” she said. So are lots of animals, and that’s very sad, but it still doesn’t make them particularly interesting to the general public. She kept insisting that no, really, this particular kind of extinct pigeon is truly fascinating, and I kept displaying a complete lack of enthusiasm. Finally, she started reading some facts off a Web page. After the first couple of items, I thought, “Yeah, OK, that’s a bit interesting, but if that’s all there is to it…” Only it wasn’t. She kept reading—and I kept saying “Wow.” Even I had to admit, yes, the story of the passenger pigeon is quite interesting. So by way of penance, allow me to present the poop (as it were) on passenger pigeons.

The last passenger pigeon in the world died less than 100 years ago—in 1914, according to most reports. In fact, we know exactly when and where the species went extinct: Tuesday, September 1, 1914, at 1:00 p.m. Eastern time at the Cincinnati Zoo. We even know the last bird’s name: Martha. She was 29 years old. It’s rather extraordinary that we should have such detailed and precise information about the moment when a species meets its demise—the passenger pigeon is almost certainly unique in that regard. What’s even more extraordinary is that just a century or so earlier, passenger pigeons had been more numerous than any other bird in North America—numbering in the billions. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Leonardo's Robots

Renaissance man meets mechanical man

[Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The 1715 Spanish Plate Fleet

Disaster on the Treasure Coast

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From the archives…

The Autogyro

Taking the proto-helicopter for a spin

[Article Continues…]

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