From the archives…

The Invention of the Wheel

The best thing until sliced bread

On occasion, you may have heard it said of some wonderful gadget, “This is the greatest invention since sliced bread!” Such a comment is intended to be both a compliment and a reference to how revolutionary and world-changing the invention is. It’s worth bearing in mind, though, that while people have been slicing bread for eons, pre-sliced, packaged bread has only been available since 1928, when Otto Frederick Rohwedder introduced the world’s first mechanical bread slicer in Battle Creek, Michigan. I don’t know what revolutionary invention the bread-slicer was compared to when it first appeared, but sooner or later, it all goes back to the wheel. Nobody seems to be able to come up with an older, or more important, invention than that.

Giving It a Spin
Before I began my curatorial duties here at Interesting Thing of the Day, I had never really wondered when the wheel was invented, much less why it was invented. That’s obvious, isn’t it? Everyone knows the wheel was invented to enable people to move stuff around more easily—a revolutionary alternative (so to speak) to carrying, pushing, or dragging heavy objects. Surprisingly enough, some historians and archeologists aren’t so sure about that. There is in fact a fairly good case for the hypothesis that the wheel was invented to facilitate pottery making. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Passglas

Precision measure for drinking games

I never cease to be amazed at how frequently the interesting things I merely imagine turn out to be real. For instance, my relentless research in the field of goblets and challenges led me to wonder whether there might be some special type of goblet used in drinking games. I turned as usual to the sacred oracle, the source of all wisdom in the universe, for guidance. And what Google told me, after a fashion, was that such goblets do indeed exist. In fact, depending on one’s willingness to stretch the definition of goblet, which in my case is boundless, there may be several very different sorts of goblets that figure in drinking games.

For example, there’s a dice game played in Bolivia called Alalay. It’s quite similar to Yahtzee, in that it involves rolling five dice, with scoring based on the values of various number combinations. As in Yahtzee, the dice are placed in a small container and shaken before being thrown. In Alalay, this container, which is made of stiff leather, is called a goblet. Alalay is sometimes played as a drinking game, though the goblet itself is never used for alcohol; it wouldn’t do to get the dice wet. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Wine Color Taste Tests

Questioning common sense(s)

An article titled “Can You Tell Red From White?” in the online edition of Wine Spectator Magazine a couple of years ago began with this line:

The New Yorker threw down the gauntlet. Wine Spectator rose to the challenge.

Whatever else you may say about the two magazines in question or the qualifications of the authors they hire to write about wine, this much is clear: Wine Spectator missed a critical opportunity for an excellent pun. In fact, so blatant was their oversight that it casts grave doubts on the magazine’s editorial sensibilities. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Hymir's Cauldron

Thor’s goblet-throwing prize

You’d be surprised how few literary examples of goblet-throwing there are. I mean, sure, this sort of thing shows up every now and then in your basic fantasy novel, but history isn’t exactly littered with the shards of goblets broken dramatically at the climax of some great epic tale. Except for one, of course: the Hymiskviða (The Lay of Hymir), a poem that tells the story of Thor’s heroic acquisition of Hymir’s Cauldron. This is the sort of story you read to your kids at bedtime—if you happen to live in Iceland in the year 1300 or thereabouts. For those not familiar with the story, here is an extremely abbreviated and very slightly accurate retelling.

Give Me a Cauldron Large Enough, and a Place to Stand…
The gods of Asgard were looking for an eternal source of mead, and they demanded that Ægir, god of the sea, provide it for them. Ægir, unhappy with the tone of their request, said he’d only do it if the gods could supply him with a cauldron large enough, such enormous vessels being rather scarce. Tyr, the god of war and justice, knew just where to obtain such an item: his father, the giant Hymir, had one that was “a league deep” (that would be about three and a half miles—certainly large enough to keep the gods drunk for a few millennia). But Tyr knew his father wouldn’t acquiesce easily, so he enlisted the aid of Thor, the god of thunder, to trick Hymir into parting with the giant cauldron. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Great Cork Debate

Thinking outside the bottle

When I was in high school, I had a darkroom in the basement. Because I didn’t do a large quantity of film processing, one of my biggest concerns was that the expensive chemicals would go bad before I had a chance to use them. Since it is primarily exposure to oxygen that damages photographic chemicals, I stored them in air-evacuation containers, which are basically plastic bags inside boxes. As you drain out the chemical through a special spout that sticks through the box, the bag shrinks, thus making sure no air gets in. This solution is simple, elegant, and effective.

The very same laws of chemistry apply to wines, and that is why wine is sometimes sold “by the box” in air-evacuation containers. It keeps wine fresher longer, and is even less expensive, in many cases, than bottled wine. What’s not to like? And yet, boxed wine is routinely ridiculed as low-class. Everyone knows that any decent wine will be stored in a corked bottle. It’s just The Way Things Are. It’s not about oxidation, it’s about perception. You have to do things right. Buying wine in a box is tantamount to buying wine with a screw cap. It’s an indication of poor quality. Or is it? [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Bhutanese Archery

Shooting game

One day Morgen and I were having a brainstorming session, as we frequently do, about interesting things that might fit in with certain weeks’ themes. The expression “hit or miss” came up, and we began talking about things that involve hits and misses. Morgen said, “Do you know what the national sport in Bhutan is?” I was embarrassed to admit I did not even know exactly where Bhutan is located; it’s simply not a place I’ve ever spent much time thinking about. Morgen told me that Bhutan is between China and India. Although this didn’t give me any strong clues, I made what I thought was a safe guess: “Soccer.” That turned out to be a particularly bad guess, because in 2002, Bhutan’s national soccer team was ranked 202 out of 203 worldwide; FIFA sanctioned a special match that year, at the same time as the World Cup finals, between Bhutan and 203rd-ranked Montserrat; the match was covered in a documentary film called “The Other Final.”

In fact, Bhutan’s national sport is archery. That fact alone, I think, qualifies as an Interesting Thing, but there’s more to the story.

Weapons of Play
Bhutan is a Buddhist nation, and one of the central precepts of Buddhism is a reverence for all life. So it seems somewhat incongruous that the nation’s favorite game involves a hunting instrument (or, depending on how you look at it, a weapon of war). But in Bhutan, the bow and arrow can only be used for play. In fact, when making arrows, one can use only feathers that were found on the ground; to kill a bird to obtain its feathers would be considered wrong. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

English Female Social Titles

Miss-ing the point

My wife kept her name when we got married. This being the 21st century, I wouldn’t have thought that would be in any way surprising or problematic. But in the modern English-speaking world, linguistic habits haven’t quite caught up with changing social conventions—many people (and computers) still assume that when a man and woman get married, the woman will take on the man’s surname. As a result, we get mail addressed to “Mrs. Morgen Kissell” and even, bafflingly, “Mrs. Liz Kissell”—Morgen’s given first name is Elizabeth, but she has gone by her middle name since birth, and has never, ever been called Liz. At least no one, to my knowledge, has called her “Mrs. Joseph Kissell,” which I think both of us would find rather offensive.

As annoying as such mistakes can be, I do sympathize with folks who no longer feel they have a proper, respectful, and appropriate title to use when addressing women. The title “Miss,” which used to refer to an unmarried woman of any age, has fallen into disfavor, except for young girls. And “Mrs.” is supposed to refer to a married woman, but only when using her husband’s last name. (Morgen certainly is neither “Miss Jahnke” nor “Mrs. Kissell,” but she can’t be “Mrs. Jahnke” either, because that would imply my last name is Jahnke.) So that leaves “Ms.,” which virtually every style guide now proclaims as the only reasonable choice, but which many people hesitate to use because it feels like an odd, newfangled, non-word. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Pennsylvania Dutch

The Germans of Lancaster County

Pennsylvania is a state (well, commonwealth if you want to be completely nitpicky) known for its linguistic, uh, irregularities. In the western part of the state, where I grew up, many people speak an endearingly odd dialect of English called Pittsburghese. Some town names have pronunciations that utterly belie their foreign roots. DuBois is pronounced “dew boys”; North Versailles is “north ver-sales”; La Jose is “la Joes.” Then, of course, there are towns that simply have goofy names—Eighty Four, Slippery Rock, and Punxsutawney come to mind.

I’ve Been to Pennsylvania; Ask Me about Intercourse.
But to put all these oddities in perspective, western Pennsylvanians rightly consider their geographic nomenclature downright bland compared to what you’ll encounter on the other side of the state. Drive four hours east from Pittsburgh and you’re in Lancaster County, an area that attracts tourists by the thousands each year for no other reason than that they want to be able to say they went through Intercourse to get to Paradise. (This makes for a roundabout route, as it turns out, but that’s only fitting.) Other nearby towns include Blue Ball, Fertility, Gap, Bird-in-Hand, Smoketown, and even (I swear I am not making this up) Kissel Hill. These place names seem all the more amusing because the area is known for its religious conservatism, being home to large numbers of Amish and Old-Order Mennonite folk in particular. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Folk Etymology

Lazing your way to a bigger vocabulary

I need to say a few words about woodchucks. (First let me pause while you say the rhyme to yourself. Go on, you know you want to. Get it out of your system. Good.) I never understood what the word “chuck” was supposed to mean in the rhyme. Chuck isn’t often used as a verb; when it is, its most common meaning is “to throw” (as in, “Chuck that AOL CD in the trash”). This is naturally not the type of thing we expect a woodchuck to be capable of (as indicated by the counterfactual nature of the question in the rhyme). So the real question is why anyone would have given this animal such a nonsensical name in the first place.

(As an aside, woodchuck isn’t the only nonsensical name this animal has. It’s also called a groundhog. Oddly enough, “groundhog” is a fairly literal translation of the Dutch word aardvark, even though aardvarks don’t look anything like hogs. Woodchucks (Marmota monax) are rodents, or more precisely marmots, and are not even distantly related to either aardvarks or hogs. The most salient similarity among the three species is a propensity for burrowing.) [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Mincemeat

The dessert that eats like a meal

I set out to find a simple answer to a simple question: Why is there no meat in mincemeat? It was going to be a tidy tale of how a misnomer was born. Look up a few Web sites, collect a few facts, wrap them in a nice story, and on to the next project. As so often happens, however, my research took a rather circuitous path as I kept discovering connections and facts that I’d had no inkling of when I started out. The story of mincemeat is more interesting—and convoluted—than I ever imagined.

Mincemeat is, I must confess, a topic about which I have never felt much passion. In my family, mincemeat pie was simply one of a half dozen standard Christmas dessert choices. I rarely had room for more than two, and in my personal hierarchy of dessert preferences, mincemeat ranked well below Johnny Bull Pudding and blackberry pie. On the occasions I did eat mincemeat pie, it made no particular impression on me other than provoking a vague curiosity at its name, since whatever the filling was, it clearly did not contain any meat. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Urban Monorail Systems

The rise of Personal Rapid Transit

I’ve never regretted the decision I made a few years ago to live without a car. After all, if I walk down the hill a few blocks from my home, I can catch a subway, streetcar, or bus to take me nearly anywhere in San Francisco I may want to go. But every now and then, that “nearly” part causes me grief. There are certain spots in the city I can reach via public transit only by taking a subway, a streetcar, and two buses—and then walking for 20 minutes. The prospect of all that waiting and transferring, especially on weekends or when buses are running late, tempts me to take a taxi (which gets quite expensive) or rent a car (forcing me to worry about parking and traffic). Even in a compact city such as this one, getting from place to place quickly, inexpensively, and safely can be difficult. Owning a car can help in some ways, but for many of us, it would be more trouble and expense than it’s worth.

It’s a Bird, It’s a Train, It’s a…Taxi?
Several articles here on Interesting Thing of the Day have mentioned ways of addressing the urban transportation problem: car sharing programs, carfree cities (including Arcosanti), and personal flying machines, for example. A while back, a reader suggested I check out an innovative urban transportation system called SkyTran. Later, another reader wrote to tell me about a different urban mass-transit solution called the RUF (Rapid Urban Flexible) system. Although the two differ significantly, they are both monorail transit systems designed for cities. As I began reading about these, I discovered that they are just two among many similar proposed designs. Clearly, this was a meme worth investigating. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Carbon Sequestration

Greenhouse gas disposal techniques

As everyone knows, a lot of scientists are extremely concerned about global warming. Evidence suggests that the high levels of so-called greenhouse gases produced over the past half-century or so will result in higher temperatures worldwide over the coming decades. The additional heat could melt polar ice and raise the level of the ocean, causing flooding and eroding coastlines; it could also lead to more severe climate change with potentially devastating effects. Other scientists say that worries about global warming are overblown—that the temperature will not rise significantly (at least, not due to human activity), and that in any case, the results of a slightly increased average temperature would be mild rather than disastrous.

But no one disputes that the air has become quite polluted—you can verify this easily by looking out your window. One major component of air pollution is carbon dioxide (CO2), which is produced as a waste product when fossil fuels are burned. The level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen markedly since the beginning of the industrial age, and even if that change is not completely attributable to human progress, it’s not a good thing. Whether or not human-generated CO2 contributes to global warming, it clearly causes other problems. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Memetics

The science of idea propagation

Several years ago, a friend of mine gave me a book for my birthday called Thought Contagion. I had not heard of the book or its subject matter, the science of memetics, but I was fascinated by what I read. Author Aaron Lynch explained, concisely and convincingly, how some of the most significant beliefs in society came to be as popular as they are. By the end of the book I felt I understood, for the first time, a great many things that should have been obvious all along. I was even more surprised to discover that the things Lynch was saying were considered novel, and even somewhat controversial. What he described, simply and elegantly, is a compelling theory about the way beliefs spread.

What Memes May Come
The fundamental term in memetics is meme, which means a self-propagating idea. The term was borrowed from sociobiologist Richard Dawkins, who coined it in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. Roughly speaking, memetics applies the principles of evolution by natural selection to beliefs. In conventional evolution, genes that improve an organism’s ability to survive endure in future generations and spread throughout a population; those that hinder survival eventually disappear. By analogy, memetics says that ideas are subject to natural selection as well; those that most effectively promote their own survival multiply and spread, while those that don’t, don’t. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Intaglio Printing

Duplicating under pressure

As I look around at the many printed items within arm’s reach—books, magazines, a calendar, posters, checks, labels, boxes, and so on—I am vaguely aware that nearly all of them made their way through a printing press at some point. And, since I’ve used rubber stamps and stencils, I have an equally vague awareness that any printing process is based on putting ink or other coloring onto some parts of paper while keeping it off other parts. But despite having worked in the prepress field for a while, I never thought very deeply about the methods for transferring ink to paper; terms like “offset” and “lithography” had no specific meaning to me. Even after I finally grasped how laser printers work, ink-based printing methods remained a mystery.

Every time I realize that I’ve been living in blissful ignorance about something so common, I feel sort of guilty—it’s the same feeling I had when I was in high school and knew that I’d studied just enough to get through my exams, but not enough to actually understand or remember anything. So I began some remedial self-instruction in printing techniques, determined to fill in those embarrassing gaps in my knowledge. Along the way, I learned all sorts of interesting things, but one printing method particularly struck my fancy: intaglio (in-TAL-yo) printing. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Sea Monkeys

New life for an old fad

I recently went to a toy store with my son, and found myself marveling at how little had changed since I was a kid. Alongside all the miracles of modern toy science were dozens of items that I remembered seeing on toy store shelves 25 years or more ago, and they looked exactly the same—except for the price. Slinkies. Magic Rocks. Ant Farms. Silly Putty. Nerf balls. And, of course, Sea Monkeys. I vividly remember the ads in comic books and magazines promising “Instant Life—Just Add Water!” The ads pictured anthropomorphic sea creatures with tails, smiling faces, and crown-like protuberances on their heads. These intelligent and fun-loving creatures could be your new pets for just a few dollars.

I never managed to prevail upon my parents to spring for the Sea Monkeys, but I always wondered just how close the real thing would be to the hype. A couple of years ago, when Morgen bought a Sea Monkeys set as a present for a friend, I got to see them in action. The little critters were, unsurprisingly, not terribly impressive as pets. However, in terms of both biology and marketing they are a marvel every bit as interesting as those ads implied. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Invention of the Wheel

The best thing until sliced bread

On occasion, you may have heard it said of some wonderful gadget, “This is the greatest invention since sliced bread!” Such a comment is intended to be both a compliment and a reference to how revolutionary and world-changing the invention is. It’s worth bearing in mind, though, that while people have been slicing bread for eons, pre-sliced, packaged bread has only been available since 1928, when Otto Frederick Rohwedder introduced the world’s first mechanical bread slicer in Battle Creek, Michigan. I don’t know what revolutionary invention the bread-slicer was compared to when it first appeared, but sooner or later, it all goes back to the wheel. Nobody seems to be able to come up with an older, or more important, invention than that.

Giving It a Spin
Before I began my curatorial duties here at Interesting Thing of the Day, I had never really wondered when the wheel was invented, much less why it was invented. That’s obvious, isn’t it? Everyone knows the wheel was invented to enable people to move stuff around more easily—a revolutionary alternative (so to speak) to carrying, pushing, or dragging heavy objects. Surprisingly enough, some historians and archeologists aren’t so sure about that. There is in fact a fairly good case for the hypothesis that the wheel was invented to facilitate pottery making. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Passglas

Precision measure for drinking games

I never cease to be amazed at how frequently the interesting things I merely imagine turn out to be real. For instance, my relentless research in the field of goblets and challenges led me to wonder whether there might be some special type of goblet used in drinking games. I turned as usual to the sacred oracle, the source of all wisdom in the universe, for guidance. And what Google told me, after a fashion, was that such goblets do indeed exist. In fact, depending on one’s willingness to stretch the definition of goblet, which in my case is boundless, there may be several very different sorts of goblets that figure in drinking games.

For example, there’s a dice game played in Bolivia called Alalay. It’s quite similar to Yahtzee, in that it involves rolling five dice, with scoring based on the values of various number combinations. As in Yahtzee, the dice are placed in a small container and shaken before being thrown. In Alalay, this container, which is made of stiff leather, is called a goblet. Alalay is sometimes played as a drinking game, though the goblet itself is never used for alcohol; it wouldn’t do to get the dice wet. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Wine Color Taste Tests

Questioning common sense(s)

An article titled “Can You Tell Red From White?” in the online edition of Wine Spectator Magazine a couple of years ago began with this line:

The New Yorker threw down the gauntlet. Wine Spectator rose to the challenge.

Whatever else you may say about the two magazines in question or the qualifications of the authors they hire to write about wine, this much is clear: Wine Spectator missed a critical opportunity for an excellent pun. In fact, so blatant was their oversight that it casts grave doubts on the magazine’s editorial sensibilities. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Hymir's Cauldron

Thor’s goblet-throwing prize

You’d be surprised how few literary examples of goblet-throwing there are. I mean, sure, this sort of thing shows up every now and then in your basic fantasy novel, but history isn’t exactly littered with the shards of goblets broken dramatically at the climax of some great epic tale. Except for one, of course: the Hymiskviða (The Lay of Hymir), a poem that tells the story of Thor’s heroic acquisition of Hymir’s Cauldron. This is the sort of story you read to your kids at bedtime—if you happen to live in Iceland in the year 1300 or thereabouts. For those not familiar with the story, here is an extremely abbreviated and very slightly accurate retelling.

Give Me a Cauldron Large Enough, and a Place to Stand…
The gods of Asgard were looking for an eternal source of mead, and they demanded that Ægir, god of the sea, provide it for them. Ægir, unhappy with the tone of their request, said he’d only do it if the gods could supply him with a cauldron large enough, such enormous vessels being rather scarce. Tyr, the god of war and justice, knew just where to obtain such an item: his father, the giant Hymir, had one that was “a league deep” (that would be about three and a half miles—certainly large enough to keep the gods drunk for a few millennia). But Tyr knew his father wouldn’t acquiesce easily, so he enlisted the aid of Thor, the god of thunder, to trick Hymir into parting with the giant cauldron. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Great Cork Debate

Thinking outside the bottle

When I was in high school, I had a darkroom in the basement. Because I didn’t do a large quantity of film processing, one of my biggest concerns was that the expensive chemicals would go bad before I had a chance to use them. Since it is primarily exposure to oxygen that damages photographic chemicals, I stored them in air-evacuation containers, which are basically plastic bags inside boxes. As you drain out the chemical through a special spout that sticks through the box, the bag shrinks, thus making sure no air gets in. This solution is simple, elegant, and effective.

The very same laws of chemistry apply to wines, and that is why wine is sometimes sold “by the box” in air-evacuation containers. It keeps wine fresher longer, and is even less expensive, in many cases, than bottled wine. What’s not to like? And yet, boxed wine is routinely ridiculed as low-class. Everyone knows that any decent wine will be stored in a corked bottle. It’s just The Way Things Are. It’s not about oxidation, it’s about perception. You have to do things right. Buying wine in a box is tantamount to buying wine with a screw cap. It’s an indication of poor quality. Or is it? [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Bhutanese Archery

Shooting game

One day Morgen and I were having a brainstorming session, as we frequently do, about interesting things that might fit in with certain weeks’ themes. The expression “hit or miss” came up, and we began talking about things that involve hits and misses. Morgen said, “Do you know what the national sport in Bhutan is?” I was embarrassed to admit I did not even know exactly where Bhutan is located; it’s simply not a place I’ve ever spent much time thinking about. Morgen told me that Bhutan is between China and India. Although this didn’t give me any strong clues, I made what I thought was a safe guess: “Soccer.” That turned out to be a particularly bad guess, because in 2002, Bhutan’s national soccer team was ranked 202 out of 203 worldwide; FIFA sanctioned a special match that year, at the same time as the World Cup finals, between Bhutan and 203rd-ranked Montserrat; the match was covered in a documentary film called “The Other Final.”

In fact, Bhutan’s national sport is archery. That fact alone, I think, qualifies as an Interesting Thing, but there’s more to the story.

Weapons of Play
Bhutan is a Buddhist nation, and one of the central precepts of Buddhism is a reverence for all life. So it seems somewhat incongruous that the nation’s favorite game involves a hunting instrument (or, depending on how you look at it, a weapon of war). But in Bhutan, the bow and arrow can only be used for play. In fact, when making arrows, one can use only feathers that were found on the ground; to kill a bird to obtain its feathers would be considered wrong. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

English Female Social Titles

Miss-ing the point

My wife kept her name when we got married. This being the 21st century, I wouldn’t have thought that would be in any way surprising or problematic. But in the modern English-speaking world, linguistic habits haven’t quite caught up with changing social conventions—many people (and computers) still assume that when a man and woman get married, the woman will take on the man’s surname. As a result, we get mail addressed to “Mrs. Morgen Kissell” and even, bafflingly, “Mrs. Liz Kissell”—Morgen’s given first name is Elizabeth, but she has gone by her middle name since birth, and has never, ever been called Liz. At least no one, to my knowledge, has called her “Mrs. Joseph Kissell,” which I think both of us would find rather offensive.

As annoying as such mistakes can be, I do sympathize with folks who no longer feel they have a proper, respectful, and appropriate title to use when addressing women. The title “Miss,” which used to refer to an unmarried woman of any age, has fallen into disfavor, except for young girls. And “Mrs.” is supposed to refer to a married woman, but only when using her husband’s last name. (Morgen certainly is neither “Miss Jahnke” nor “Mrs. Kissell,” but she can’t be “Mrs. Jahnke” either, because that would imply my last name is Jahnke.) So that leaves “Ms.,” which virtually every style guide now proclaims as the only reasonable choice, but which many people hesitate to use because it feels like an odd, newfangled, non-word. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Pennsylvania Dutch

The Germans of Lancaster County

Pennsylvania is a state (well, commonwealth if you want to be completely nitpicky) known for its linguistic, uh, irregularities. In the western part of the state, where I grew up, many people speak an endearingly odd dialect of English called Pittsburghese. Some town names have pronunciations that utterly belie their foreign roots. DuBois is pronounced “dew boys”; North Versailles is “north ver-sales”; La Jose is “la Joes.” Then, of course, there are towns that simply have goofy names—Eighty Four, Slippery Rock, and Punxsutawney come to mind.

I’ve Been to Pennsylvania; Ask Me about Intercourse.
But to put all these oddities in perspective, western Pennsylvanians rightly consider their geographic nomenclature downright bland compared to what you’ll encounter on the other side of the state. Drive four hours east from Pittsburgh and you’re in Lancaster County, an area that attracts tourists by the thousands each year for no other reason than that they want to be able to say they went through Intercourse to get to Paradise. (This makes for a roundabout route, as it turns out, but that’s only fitting.) Other nearby towns include Blue Ball, Fertility, Gap, Bird-in-Hand, Smoketown, and even (I swear I am not making this up) Kissel Hill. These place names seem all the more amusing because the area is known for its religious conservatism, being home to large numbers of Amish and Old-Order Mennonite folk in particular. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Folk Etymology

Lazing your way to a bigger vocabulary

I need to say a few words about woodchucks. (First let me pause while you say the rhyme to yourself. Go on, you know you want to. Get it out of your system. Good.) I never understood what the word “chuck” was supposed to mean in the rhyme. Chuck isn’t often used as a verb; when it is, its most common meaning is “to throw” (as in, “Chuck that AOL CD in the trash”). This is naturally not the type of thing we expect a woodchuck to be capable of (as indicated by the counterfactual nature of the question in the rhyme). So the real question is why anyone would have given this animal such a nonsensical name in the first place.

(As an aside, woodchuck isn’t the only nonsensical name this animal has. It’s also called a groundhog. Oddly enough, “groundhog” is a fairly literal translation of the Dutch word aardvark, even though aardvarks don’t look anything like hogs. Woodchucks (Marmota monax) are rodents, or more precisely marmots, and are not even distantly related to either aardvarks or hogs. The most salient similarity among the three species is a propensity for burrowing.) [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Mincemeat

The dessert that eats like a meal

I set out to find a simple answer to a simple question: Why is there no meat in mincemeat? It was going to be a tidy tale of how a misnomer was born. Look up a few Web sites, collect a few facts, wrap them in a nice story, and on to the next project. As so often happens, however, my research took a rather circuitous path as I kept discovering connections and facts that I’d had no inkling of when I started out. The story of mincemeat is more interesting—and convoluted—than I ever imagined.

Mincemeat is, I must confess, a topic about which I have never felt much passion. In my family, mincemeat pie was simply one of a half dozen standard Christmas dessert choices. I rarely had room for more than two, and in my personal hierarchy of dessert preferences, mincemeat ranked well below Johnny Bull Pudding and blackberry pie. On the occasions I did eat mincemeat pie, it made no particular impression on me other than provoking a vague curiosity at its name, since whatever the filling was, it clearly did not contain any meat. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Urban Monorail Systems

The rise of Personal Rapid Transit

I’ve never regretted the decision I made a few years ago to live without a car. After all, if I walk down the hill a few blocks from my home, I can catch a subway, streetcar, or bus to take me nearly anywhere in San Francisco I may want to go. But every now and then, that “nearly” part causes me grief. There are certain spots in the city I can reach via public transit only by taking a subway, a streetcar, and two buses—and then walking for 20 minutes. The prospect of all that waiting and transferring, especially on weekends or when buses are running late, tempts me to take a taxi (which gets quite expensive) or rent a car (forcing me to worry about parking and traffic). Even in a compact city such as this one, getting from place to place quickly, inexpensively, and safely can be difficult. Owning a car can help in some ways, but for many of us, it would be more trouble and expense than it’s worth.

It’s a Bird, It’s a Train, It’s a…Taxi?
Several articles here on Interesting Thing of the Day have mentioned ways of addressing the urban transportation problem: car sharing programs, carfree cities (including Arcosanti), and personal flying machines, for example. A while back, a reader suggested I check out an innovative urban transportation system called SkyTran. Later, another reader wrote to tell me about a different urban mass-transit solution called the RUF (Rapid Urban Flexible) system. Although the two differ significantly, they are both monorail transit systems designed for cities. As I began reading about these, I discovered that they are just two among many similar proposed designs. Clearly, this was a meme worth investigating. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Carbon Sequestration

Greenhouse gas disposal techniques

As everyone knows, a lot of scientists are extremely concerned about global warming. Evidence suggests that the high levels of so-called greenhouse gases produced over the past half-century or so will result in higher temperatures worldwide over the coming decades. The additional heat could melt polar ice and raise the level of the ocean, causing flooding and eroding coastlines; it could also lead to more severe climate change with potentially devastating effects. Other scientists say that worries about global warming are overblown—that the temperature will not rise significantly (at least, not due to human activity), and that in any case, the results of a slightly increased average temperature would be mild rather than disastrous.

But no one disputes that the air has become quite polluted—you can verify this easily by looking out your window. One major component of air pollution is carbon dioxide (CO2), which is produced as a waste product when fossil fuels are burned. The level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen markedly since the beginning of the industrial age, and even if that change is not completely attributable to human progress, it’s not a good thing. Whether or not human-generated CO2 contributes to global warming, it clearly causes other problems. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Memetics

The science of idea propagation

Several years ago, a friend of mine gave me a book for my birthday called Thought Contagion. I had not heard of the book or its subject matter, the science of memetics, but I was fascinated by what I read. Author Aaron Lynch explained, concisely and convincingly, how some of the most significant beliefs in society came to be as popular as they are. By the end of the book I felt I understood, for the first time, a great many things that should have been obvious all along. I was even more surprised to discover that the things Lynch was saying were considered novel, and even somewhat controversial. What he described, simply and elegantly, is a compelling theory about the way beliefs spread.

What Memes May Come
The fundamental term in memetics is meme, which means a self-propagating idea. The term was borrowed from sociobiologist Richard Dawkins, who coined it in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. Roughly speaking, memetics applies the principles of evolution by natural selection to beliefs. In conventional evolution, genes that improve an organism’s ability to survive endure in future generations and spread throughout a population; those that hinder survival eventually disappear. By analogy, memetics says that ideas are subject to natural selection as well; those that most effectively promote their own survival multiply and spread, while those that don’t, don’t. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Intaglio Printing

Duplicating under pressure

As I look around at the many printed items within arm’s reach—books, magazines, a calendar, posters, checks, labels, boxes, and so on—I am vaguely aware that nearly all of them made their way through a printing press at some point. And, since I’ve used rubber stamps and stencils, I have an equally vague awareness that any printing process is based on putting ink or other coloring onto some parts of paper while keeping it off other parts. But despite having worked in the prepress field for a while, I never thought very deeply about the methods for transferring ink to paper; terms like “offset” and “lithography” had no specific meaning to me. Even after I finally grasped how laser printers work, ink-based printing methods remained a mystery.

Every time I realize that I’ve been living in blissful ignorance about something so common, I feel sort of guilty—it’s the same feeling I had when I was in high school and knew that I’d studied just enough to get through my exams, but not enough to actually understand or remember anything. So I began some remedial self-instruction in printing techniques, determined to fill in those embarrassing gaps in my knowledge. Along the way, I learned all sorts of interesting things, but one printing method particularly struck my fancy: intaglio (in-TAL-yo) printing. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Sea Monkeys

New life for an old fad

I recently went to a toy store with my son, and found myself marveling at how little had changed since I was a kid. Alongside all the miracles of modern toy science were dozens of items that I remembered seeing on toy store shelves 25 years or more ago, and they looked exactly the same—except for the price. Slinkies. Magic Rocks. Ant Farms. Silly Putty. Nerf balls. And, of course, Sea Monkeys. I vividly remember the ads in comic books and magazines promising “Instant Life—Just Add Water!” The ads pictured anthropomorphic sea creatures with tails, smiling faces, and crown-like protuberances on their heads. These intelligent and fun-loving creatures could be your new pets for just a few dollars.

I never managed to prevail upon my parents to spring for the Sea Monkeys, but I always wondered just how close the real thing would be to the hype. A couple of years ago, when Morgen bought a Sea Monkeys set as a present for a friend, I got to see them in action. The little critters were, unsurprisingly, not terribly impressive as pets. However, in terms of both biology and marketing they are a marvel every bit as interesting as those ads implied. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Invention of the Wheel

The best thing until sliced bread

On occasion, you may have heard it said of some wonderful gadget, “This is the greatest invention since sliced bread!” Such a comment is intended to be both a compliment and a reference to how revolutionary and world-changing the invention is. It’s worth bearing in mind, though, that while people have been slicing bread for eons, pre-sliced, packaged bread has only been available since 1928, when Otto Frederick Rohwedder introduced the world’s first mechanical bread slicer in Battle Creek, Michigan. I don’t know what revolutionary invention the bread-slicer was compared to when it first appeared, but sooner or later, it all goes back to the wheel. Nobody seems to be able to come up with an older, or more important, invention than that.

Giving It a Spin
Before I began my curatorial duties here at Interesting Thing of the Day, I had never really wondered when the wheel was invented, much less why it was invented. That’s obvious, isn’t it? Everyone knows the wheel was invented to enable people to move stuff around more easily—a revolutionary alternative (so to speak) to carrying, pushing, or dragging heavy objects. Surprisingly enough, some historians and archeologists aren’t so sure about that. There is in fact a fairly good case for the hypothesis that the wheel was invented to facilitate pottery making. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Passglas

Precision measure for drinking games

I never cease to be amazed at how frequently the interesting things I merely imagine turn out to be real. For instance, my relentless research in the field of goblets and challenges led me to wonder whether there might be some special type of goblet used in drinking games. I turned as usual to the sacred oracle, the source of all wisdom in the universe, for guidance. And what Google told me, after a fashion, was that such goblets do indeed exist. In fact, depending on one’s willingness to stretch the definition of goblet, which in my case is boundless, there may be several very different sorts of goblets that figure in drinking games.

For example, there’s a dice game played in Bolivia called Alalay. It’s quite similar to Yahtzee, in that it involves rolling five dice, with scoring based on the values of various number combinations. As in Yahtzee, the dice are placed in a small container and shaken before being thrown. In Alalay, this container, which is made of stiff leather, is called a goblet. Alalay is sometimes played as a drinking game, though the goblet itself is never used for alcohol; it wouldn’t do to get the dice wet. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Wine Color Taste Tests

Questioning common sense(s)

An article titled “Can You Tell Red From White?” in the online edition of Wine Spectator Magazine a couple of years ago began with this line:

The New Yorker threw down the gauntlet. Wine Spectator rose to the challenge.

Whatever else you may say about the two magazines in question or the qualifications of the authors they hire to write about wine, this much is clear: Wine Spectator missed a critical opportunity for an excellent pun. In fact, so blatant was their oversight that it casts grave doubts on the magazine’s editorial sensibilities. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Hymir's Cauldron

Thor’s goblet-throwing prize

You’d be surprised how few literary examples of goblet-throwing there are. I mean, sure, this sort of thing shows up every now and then in your basic fantasy novel, but history isn’t exactly littered with the shards of goblets broken dramatically at the climax of some great epic tale. Except for one, of course: the Hymiskviða (The Lay of Hymir), a poem that tells the story of Thor’s heroic acquisition of Hymir’s Cauldron. This is the sort of story you read to your kids at bedtime—if you happen to live in Iceland in the year 1300 or thereabouts. For those not familiar with the story, here is an extremely abbreviated and very slightly accurate retelling.

Give Me a Cauldron Large Enough, and a Place to Stand…
The gods of Asgard were looking for an eternal source of mead, and they demanded that Ægir, god of the sea, provide it for them. Ægir, unhappy with the tone of their request, said he’d only do it if the gods could supply him with a cauldron large enough, such enormous vessels being rather scarce. Tyr, the god of war and justice, knew just where to obtain such an item: his father, the giant Hymir, had one that was “a league deep” (that would be about three and a half miles—certainly large enough to keep the gods drunk for a few millennia). But Tyr knew his father wouldn’t acquiesce easily, so he enlisted the aid of Thor, the god of thunder, to trick Hymir into parting with the giant cauldron. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Great Cork Debate

Thinking outside the bottle

When I was in high school, I had a darkroom in the basement. Because I didn’t do a large quantity of film processing, one of my biggest concerns was that the expensive chemicals would go bad before I had a chance to use them. Since it is primarily exposure to oxygen that damages photographic chemicals, I stored them in air-evacuation containers, which are basically plastic bags inside boxes. As you drain out the chemical through a special spout that sticks through the box, the bag shrinks, thus making sure no air gets in. This solution is simple, elegant, and effective.

The very same laws of chemistry apply to wines, and that is why wine is sometimes sold “by the box” in air-evacuation containers. It keeps wine fresher longer, and is even less expensive, in many cases, than bottled wine. What’s not to like? And yet, boxed wine is routinely ridiculed as low-class. Everyone knows that any decent wine will be stored in a corked bottle. It’s just The Way Things Are. It’s not about oxidation, it’s about perception. You have to do things right. Buying wine in a box is tantamount to buying wine with a screw cap. It’s an indication of poor quality. Or is it? [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Bhutanese Archery

Shooting game

One day Morgen and I were having a brainstorming session, as we frequently do, about interesting things that might fit in with certain weeks’ themes. The expression “hit or miss” came up, and we began talking about things that involve hits and misses. Morgen said, “Do you know what the national sport in Bhutan is?” I was embarrassed to admit I did not even know exactly where Bhutan is located; it’s simply not a place I’ve ever spent much time thinking about. Morgen told me that Bhutan is between China and India. Although this didn’t give me any strong clues, I made what I thought was a safe guess: “Soccer.” That turned out to be a particularly bad guess, because in 2002, Bhutan’s national soccer team was ranked 202 out of 203 worldwide; FIFA sanctioned a special match that year, at the same time as the World Cup finals, between Bhutan and 203rd-ranked Montserrat; the match was covered in a documentary film called “The Other Final.”

In fact, Bhutan’s national sport is archery. That fact alone, I think, qualifies as an Interesting Thing, but there’s more to the story.

Weapons of Play
Bhutan is a Buddhist nation, and one of the central precepts of Buddhism is a reverence for all life. So it seems somewhat incongruous that the nation’s favorite game involves a hunting instrument (or, depending on how you look at it, a weapon of war). But in Bhutan, the bow and arrow can only be used for play. In fact, when making arrows, one can use only feathers that were found on the ground; to kill a bird to obtain its feathers would be considered wrong. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

English Female Social Titles

Miss-ing the point

My wife kept her name when we got married. This being the 21st century, I wouldn’t have thought that would be in any way surprising or problematic. But in the modern English-speaking world, linguistic habits haven’t quite caught up with changing social conventions—many people (and computers) still assume that when a man and woman get married, the woman will take on the man’s surname. As a result, we get mail addressed to “Mrs. Morgen Kissell” and even, bafflingly, “Mrs. Liz Kissell”—Morgen’s given first name is Elizabeth, but she has gone by her middle name since birth, and has never, ever been called Liz. At least no one, to my knowledge, has called her “Mrs. Joseph Kissell,” which I think both of us would find rather offensive.

As annoying as such mistakes can be, I do sympathize with folks who no longer feel they have a proper, respectful, and appropriate title to use when addressing women. The title “Miss,” which used to refer to an unmarried woman of any age, has fallen into disfavor, except for young girls. And “Mrs.” is supposed to refer to a married woman, but only when using her husband’s last name. (Morgen certainly is neither “Miss Jahnke” nor “Mrs. Kissell,” but she can’t be “Mrs. Jahnke” either, because that would imply my last name is Jahnke.) So that leaves “Ms.,” which virtually every style guide now proclaims as the only reasonable choice, but which many people hesitate to use because it feels like an odd, newfangled, non-word. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Pennsylvania Dutch

The Germans of Lancaster County

Pennsylvania is a state (well, commonwealth if you want to be completely nitpicky) known for its linguistic, uh, irregularities. In the western part of the state, where I grew up, many people speak an endearingly odd dialect of English called Pittsburghese. Some town names have pronunciations that utterly belie their foreign roots. DuBois is pronounced “dew boys”; North Versailles is “north ver-sales”; La Jose is “la Joes.” Then, of course, there are towns that simply have goofy names—Eighty Four, Slippery Rock, and Punxsutawney come to mind.

I’ve Been to Pennsylvania; Ask Me about Intercourse.
But to put all these oddities in perspective, western Pennsylvanians rightly consider their geographic nomenclature downright bland compared to what you’ll encounter on the other side of the state. Drive four hours east from Pittsburgh and you’re in Lancaster County, an area that attracts tourists by the thousands each year for no other reason than that they want to be able to say they went through Intercourse to get to Paradise. (This makes for a roundabout route, as it turns out, but that’s only fitting.) Other nearby towns include Blue Ball, Fertility, Gap, Bird-in-Hand, Smoketown, and even (I swear I am not making this up) Kissel Hill. These place names seem all the more amusing because the area is known for its religious conservatism, being home to large numbers of Amish and Old-Order Mennonite folk in particular. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Folk Etymology

Lazing your way to a bigger vocabulary

I need to say a few words about woodchucks. (First let me pause while you say the rhyme to yourself. Go on, you know you want to. Get it out of your system. Good.) I never understood what the word “chuck” was supposed to mean in the rhyme. Chuck isn’t often used as a verb; when it is, its most common meaning is “to throw” (as in, “Chuck that AOL CD in the trash”). This is naturally not the type of thing we expect a woodchuck to be capable of (as indicated by the counterfactual nature of the question in the rhyme). So the real question is why anyone would have given this animal such a nonsensical name in the first place.

(As an aside, woodchuck isn’t the only nonsensical name this animal has. It’s also called a groundhog. Oddly enough, “groundhog” is a fairly literal translation of the Dutch word aardvark, even though aardvarks don’t look anything like hogs. Woodchucks (Marmota monax) are rodents, or more precisely marmots, and are not even distantly related to either aardvarks or hogs. The most salient similarity among the three species is a propensity for burrowing.) [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Mincemeat

The dessert that eats like a meal

I set out to find a simple answer to a simple question: Why is there no meat in mincemeat? It was going to be a tidy tale of how a misnomer was born. Look up a few Web sites, collect a few facts, wrap them in a nice story, and on to the next project. As so often happens, however, my research took a rather circuitous path as I kept discovering connections and facts that I’d had no inkling of when I started out. The story of mincemeat is more interesting—and convoluted—than I ever imagined.

Mincemeat is, I must confess, a topic about which I have never felt much passion. In my family, mincemeat pie was simply one of a half dozen standard Christmas dessert choices. I rarely had room for more than two, and in my personal hierarchy of dessert preferences, mincemeat ranked well below Johnny Bull Pudding and blackberry pie. On the occasions I did eat mincemeat pie, it made no particular impression on me other than provoking a vague curiosity at its name, since whatever the filling was, it clearly did not contain any meat. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Urban Monorail Systems

The rise of Personal Rapid Transit

I’ve never regretted the decision I made a few years ago to live without a car. After all, if I walk down the hill a few blocks from my home, I can catch a subway, streetcar, or bus to take me nearly anywhere in San Francisco I may want to go. But every now and then, that “nearly” part causes me grief. There are certain spots in the city I can reach via public transit only by taking a subway, a streetcar, and two buses—and then walking for 20 minutes. The prospect of all that waiting and transferring, especially on weekends or when buses are running late, tempts me to take a taxi (which gets quite expensive) or rent a car (forcing me to worry about parking and traffic). Even in a compact city such as this one, getting from place to place quickly, inexpensively, and safely can be difficult. Owning a car can help in some ways, but for many of us, it would be more trouble and expense than it’s worth.

It’s a Bird, It’s a Train, It’s a…Taxi?
Several articles here on Interesting Thing of the Day have mentioned ways of addressing the urban transportation problem: car sharing programs, carfree cities (including Arcosanti), and personal flying machines, for example. A while back, a reader suggested I check out an innovative urban transportation system called SkyTran. Later, another reader wrote to tell me about a different urban mass-transit solution called the RUF (Rapid Urban Flexible) system. Although the two differ significantly, they are both monorail transit systems designed for cities. As I began reading about these, I discovered that they are just two among many similar proposed designs. Clearly, this was a meme worth investigating. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Carbon Sequestration

Greenhouse gas disposal techniques

As everyone knows, a lot of scientists are extremely concerned about global warming. Evidence suggests that the high levels of so-called greenhouse gases produced over the past half-century or so will result in higher temperatures worldwide over the coming decades. The additional heat could melt polar ice and raise the level of the ocean, causing flooding and eroding coastlines; it could also lead to more severe climate change with potentially devastating effects. Other scientists say that worries about global warming are overblown—that the temperature will not rise significantly (at least, not due to human activity), and that in any case, the results of a slightly increased average temperature would be mild rather than disastrous.

But no one disputes that the air has become quite polluted—you can verify this easily by looking out your window. One major component of air pollution is carbon dioxide (CO2), which is produced as a waste product when fossil fuels are burned. The level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen markedly since the beginning of the industrial age, and even if that change is not completely attributable to human progress, it’s not a good thing. Whether or not human-generated CO2 contributes to global warming, it clearly causes other problems. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Memetics

The science of idea propagation

Several years ago, a friend of mine gave me a book for my birthday called Thought Contagion. I had not heard of the book or its subject matter, the science of memetics, but I was fascinated by what I read. Author Aaron Lynch explained, concisely and convincingly, how some of the most significant beliefs in society came to be as popular as they are. By the end of the book I felt I understood, for the first time, a great many things that should have been obvious all along. I was even more surprised to discover that the things Lynch was saying were considered novel, and even somewhat controversial. What he described, simply and elegantly, is a compelling theory about the way beliefs spread.

What Memes May Come
The fundamental term in memetics is meme, which means a self-propagating idea. The term was borrowed from sociobiologist Richard Dawkins, who coined it in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. Roughly speaking, memetics applies the principles of evolution by natural selection to beliefs. In conventional evolution, genes that improve an organism’s ability to survive endure in future generations and spread throughout a population; those that hinder survival eventually disappear. By analogy, memetics says that ideas are subject to natural selection as well; those that most effectively promote their own survival multiply and spread, while those that don’t, don’t. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Intaglio Printing

Duplicating under pressure

As I look around at the many printed items within arm’s reach—books, magazines, a calendar, posters, checks, labels, boxes, and so on—I am vaguely aware that nearly all of them made their way through a printing press at some point. And, since I’ve used rubber stamps and stencils, I have an equally vague awareness that any printing process is based on putting ink or other coloring onto some parts of paper while keeping it off other parts. But despite having worked in the prepress field for a while, I never thought very deeply about the methods for transferring ink to paper; terms like “offset” and “lithography” had no specific meaning to me. Even after I finally grasped how laser printers work, ink-based printing methods remained a mystery.

Every time I realize that I’ve been living in blissful ignorance about something so common, I feel sort of guilty—it’s the same feeling I had when I was in high school and knew that I’d studied just enough to get through my exams, but not enough to actually understand or remember anything. So I began some remedial self-instruction in printing techniques, determined to fill in those embarrassing gaps in my knowledge. Along the way, I learned all sorts of interesting things, but one printing method particularly struck my fancy: intaglio (in-TAL-yo) printing. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Sea Monkeys

New life for an old fad

I recently went to a toy store with my son, and found myself marveling at how little had changed since I was a kid. Alongside all the miracles of modern toy science were dozens of items that I remembered seeing on toy store shelves 25 years or more ago, and they looked exactly the same—except for the price. Slinkies. Magic Rocks. Ant Farms. Silly Putty. Nerf balls. And, of course, Sea Monkeys. I vividly remember the ads in comic books and magazines promising “Instant Life—Just Add Water!” The ads pictured anthropomorphic sea creatures with tails, smiling faces, and crown-like protuberances on their heads. These intelligent and fun-loving creatures could be your new pets for just a few dollars.

I never managed to prevail upon my parents to spring for the Sea Monkeys, but I always wondered just how close the real thing would be to the hype. A couple of years ago, when Morgen bought a Sea Monkeys set as a present for a friend, I got to see them in action. The little critters were, unsurprisingly, not terribly impressive as pets. However, in terms of both biology and marketing they are a marvel every bit as interesting as those ads implied. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Invention of the Wheel

The best thing until sliced bread

On occasion, you may have heard it said of some wonderful gadget, “This is the greatest invention since sliced bread!” Such a comment is intended to be both a compliment and a reference to how revolutionary and world-changing the invention is. It’s worth bearing in mind, though, that while people have been slicing bread for eons, pre-sliced, packaged bread has only been available since 1928, when Otto Frederick Rohwedder introduced the world’s first mechanical bread slicer in Battle Creek, Michigan. I don’t know what revolutionary invention the bread-slicer was compared to when it first appeared, but sooner or later, it all goes back to the wheel. Nobody seems to be able to come up with an older, or more important, invention than that.

Giving It a Spin
Before I began my curatorial duties here at Interesting Thing of the Day, I had never really wondered when the wheel was invented, much less why it was invented. That’s obvious, isn’t it? Everyone knows the wheel was invented to enable people to move stuff around more easily—a revolutionary alternative (so to speak) to carrying, pushing, or dragging heavy objects. Surprisingly enough, some historians and archeologists aren’t so sure about that. There is in fact a fairly good case for the hypothesis that the wheel was invented to facilitate pottery making. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Passglas

Precision measure for drinking games

I never cease to be amazed at how frequently the interesting things I merely imagine turn out to be real. For instance, my relentless research in the field of goblets and challenges led me to wonder whether there might be some special type of goblet used in drinking games. I turned as usual to the sacred oracle, the source of all wisdom in the universe, for guidance. And what Google told me, after a fashion, was that such goblets do indeed exist. In fact, depending on one’s willingness to stretch the definition of goblet, which in my case is boundless, there may be several very different sorts of goblets that figure in drinking games.

For example, there’s a dice game played in Bolivia called Alalay. It’s quite similar to Yahtzee, in that it involves rolling five dice, with scoring based on the values of various number combinations. As in Yahtzee, the dice are placed in a small container and shaken before being thrown. In Alalay, this container, which is made of stiff leather, is called a goblet. Alalay is sometimes played as a drinking game, though the goblet itself is never used for alcohol; it wouldn’t do to get the dice wet. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Wine Color Taste Tests

Questioning common sense(s)

An article titled “Can You Tell Red From White?” in the online edition of Wine Spectator Magazine a couple of years ago began with this line:

The New Yorker threw down the gauntlet. Wine Spectator rose to the challenge.

Whatever else you may say about the two magazines in question or the qualifications of the authors they hire to write about wine, this much is clear: Wine Spectator missed a critical opportunity for an excellent pun. In fact, so blatant was their oversight that it casts grave doubts on the magazine’s editorial sensibilities. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Hymir's Cauldron

Thor’s goblet-throwing prize

You’d be surprised how few literary examples of goblet-throwing there are. I mean, sure, this sort of thing shows up every now and then in your basic fantasy novel, but history isn’t exactly littered with the shards of goblets broken dramatically at the climax of some great epic tale. Except for one, of course: the Hymiskviða (The Lay of Hymir), a poem that tells the story of Thor’s heroic acquisition of Hymir’s Cauldron. This is the sort of story you read to your kids at bedtime—if you happen to live in Iceland in the year 1300 or thereabouts. For those not familiar with the story, here is an extremely abbreviated and very slightly accurate retelling.

Give Me a Cauldron Large Enough, and a Place to Stand…
The gods of Asgard were looking for an eternal source of mead, and they demanded that Ægir, god of the sea, provide it for them. Ægir, unhappy with the tone of their request, said he’d only do it if the gods could supply him with a cauldron large enough, such enormous vessels being rather scarce. Tyr, the god of war and justice, knew just where to obtain such an item: his father, the giant Hymir, had one that was “a league deep” (that would be about three and a half miles—certainly large enough to keep the gods drunk for a few millennia). But Tyr knew his father wouldn’t acquiesce easily, so he enlisted the aid of Thor, the god of thunder, to trick Hymir into parting with the giant cauldron. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Great Cork Debate

Thinking outside the bottle

When I was in high school, I had a darkroom in the basement. Because I didn’t do a large quantity of film processing, one of my biggest concerns was that the expensive chemicals would go bad before I had a chance to use them. Since it is primarily exposure to oxygen that damages photographic chemicals, I stored them in air-evacuation containers, which are basically plastic bags inside boxes. As you drain out the chemical through a special spout that sticks through the box, the bag shrinks, thus making sure no air gets in. This solution is simple, elegant, and effective.

The very same laws of chemistry apply to wines, and that is why wine is sometimes sold “by the box” in air-evacuation containers. It keeps wine fresher longer, and is even less expensive, in many cases, than bottled wine. What’s not to like? And yet, boxed wine is routinely ridiculed as low-class. Everyone knows that any decent wine will be stored in a corked bottle. It’s just The Way Things Are. It’s not about oxidation, it’s about perception. You have to do things right. Buying wine in a box is tantamount to buying wine with a screw cap. It’s an indication of poor quality. Or is it? [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Bhutanese Archery

Shooting game

One day Morgen and I were having a brainstorming session, as we frequently do, about interesting things that might fit in with certain weeks’ themes. The expression “hit or miss” came up, and we began talking about things that involve hits and misses. Morgen said, “Do you know what the national sport in Bhutan is?” I was embarrassed to admit I did not even know exactly where Bhutan is located; it’s simply not a place I’ve ever spent much time thinking about. Morgen told me that Bhutan is between China and India. Although this didn’t give me any strong clues, I made what I thought was a safe guess: “Soccer.” That turned out to be a particularly bad guess, because in 2002, Bhutan’s national soccer team was ranked 202 out of 203 worldwide; FIFA sanctioned a special match that year, at the same time as the World Cup finals, between Bhutan and 203rd-ranked Montserrat; the match was covered in a documentary film called “The Other Final.”

In fact, Bhutan’s national sport is archery. That fact alone, I think, qualifies as an Interesting Thing, but there’s more to the story.

Weapons of Play
Bhutan is a Buddhist nation, and one of the central precepts of Buddhism is a reverence for all life. So it seems somewhat incongruous that the nation’s favorite game involves a hunting instrument (or, depending on how you look at it, a weapon of war). But in Bhutan, the bow and arrow can only be used for play. In fact, when making arrows, one can use only feathers that were found on the ground; to kill a bird to obtain its feathers would be considered wrong. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

English Female Social Titles

Miss-ing the point

My wife kept her name when we got married. This being the 21st century, I wouldn’t have thought that would be in any way surprising or problematic. But in the modern English-speaking world, linguistic habits haven’t quite caught up with changing social conventions—many people (and computers) still assume that when a man and woman get married, the woman will take on the man’s surname. As a result, we get mail addressed to “Mrs. Morgen Kissell” and even, bafflingly, “Mrs. Liz Kissell”—Morgen’s given first name is Elizabeth, but she has gone by her middle name since birth, and has never, ever been called Liz. At least no one, to my knowledge, has called her “Mrs. Joseph Kissell,” which I think both of us would find rather offensive.

As annoying as such mistakes can be, I do sympathize with folks who no longer feel they have a proper, respectful, and appropriate title to use when addressing women. The title “Miss,” which used to refer to an unmarried woman of any age, has fallen into disfavor, except for young girls. And “Mrs.” is supposed to refer to a married woman, but only when using her husband’s last name. (Morgen certainly is neither “Miss Jahnke” nor “Mrs. Kissell,” but she can’t be “Mrs. Jahnke” either, because that would imply my last name is Jahnke.) So that leaves “Ms.,” which virtually every style guide now proclaims as the only reasonable choice, but which many people hesitate to use because it feels like an odd, newfangled, non-word. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Pennsylvania Dutch

The Germans of Lancaster County

Pennsylvania is a state (well, commonwealth if you want to be completely nitpicky) known for its linguistic, uh, irregularities. In the western part of the state, where I grew up, many people speak an endearingly odd dialect of English called Pittsburghese. Some town names have pronunciations that utterly belie their foreign roots. DuBois is pronounced “dew boys”; North Versailles is “north ver-sales”; La Jose is “la Joes.” Then, of course, there are towns that simply have goofy names—Eighty Four, Slippery Rock, and Punxsutawney come to mind.

I’ve Been to Pennsylvania; Ask Me about Intercourse.
But to put all these oddities in perspective, western Pennsylvanians rightly consider their geographic nomenclature downright bland compared to what you’ll encounter on the other side of the state. Drive four hours east from Pittsburgh and you’re in Lancaster County, an area that attracts tourists by the thousands each year for no other reason than that they want to be able to say they went through Intercourse to get to Paradise. (This makes for a roundabout route, as it turns out, but that’s only fitting.) Other nearby towns include Blue Ball, Fertility, Gap, Bird-in-Hand, Smoketown, and even (I swear I am not making this up) Kissel Hill. These place names seem all the more amusing because the area is known for its religious conservatism, being home to large numbers of Amish and Old-Order Mennonite folk in particular. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Folk Etymology

Lazing your way to a bigger vocabulary

I need to say a few words about woodchucks. (First let me pause while you say the rhyme to yourself. Go on, you know you want to. Get it out of your system. Good.) I never understood what the word “chuck” was supposed to mean in the rhyme. Chuck isn’t often used as a verb; when it is, its most common meaning is “to throw” (as in, “Chuck that AOL CD in the trash”). This is naturally not the type of thing we expect a woodchuck to be capable of (as indicated by the counterfactual nature of the question in the rhyme). So the real question is why anyone would have given this animal such a nonsensical name in the first place.

(As an aside, woodchuck isn’t the only nonsensical name this animal has. It’s also called a groundhog. Oddly enough, “groundhog” is a fairly literal translation of the Dutch word aardvark, even though aardvarks don’t look anything like hogs. Woodchucks (Marmota monax) are rodents, or more precisely marmots, and are not even distantly related to either aardvarks or hogs. The most salient similarity among the three species is a propensity for burrowing.) [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Mincemeat

The dessert that eats like a meal

I set out to find a simple answer to a simple question: Why is there no meat in mincemeat? It was going to be a tidy tale of how a misnomer was born. Look up a few Web sites, collect a few facts, wrap them in a nice story, and on to the next project. As so often happens, however, my research took a rather circuitous path as I kept discovering connections and facts that I’d had no inkling of when I started out. The story of mincemeat is more interesting—and convoluted—than I ever imagined.

Mincemeat is, I must confess, a topic about which I have never felt much passion. In my family, mincemeat pie was simply one of a half dozen standard Christmas dessert choices. I rarely had room for more than two, and in my personal hierarchy of dessert preferences, mincemeat ranked well below Johnny Bull Pudding and blackberry pie. On the occasions I did eat mincemeat pie, it made no particular impression on me other than provoking a vague curiosity at its name, since whatever the filling was, it clearly did not contain any meat. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Urban Monorail Systems

The rise of Personal Rapid Transit

I’ve never regretted the decision I made a few years ago to live without a car. After all, if I walk down the hill a few blocks from my home, I can catch a subway, streetcar, or bus to take me nearly anywhere in San Francisco I may want to go. But every now and then, that “nearly” part causes me grief. There are certain spots in the city I can reach via public transit only by taking a subway, a streetcar, and two buses—and then walking for 20 minutes. The prospect of all that waiting and transferring, especially on weekends or when buses are running late, tempts me to take a taxi (which gets quite expensive) or rent a car (forcing me to worry about parking and traffic). Even in a compact city such as this one, getting from place to place quickly, inexpensively, and safely can be difficult. Owning a car can help in some ways, but for many of us, it would be more trouble and expense than it’s worth.

It’s a Bird, It’s a Train, It’s a…Taxi?
Several articles here on Interesting Thing of the Day have mentioned ways of addressing the urban transportation problem: car sharing programs, carfree cities (including Arcosanti), and personal flying machines, for example. A while back, a reader suggested I check out an innovative urban transportation system called SkyTran. Later, another reader wrote to tell me about a different urban mass-transit solution called the RUF (Rapid Urban Flexible) system. Although the two differ significantly, they are both monorail transit systems designed for cities. As I began reading about these, I discovered that they are just two among many similar proposed designs. Clearly, this was a meme worth investigating. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Carbon Sequestration

Greenhouse gas disposal techniques

As everyone knows, a lot of scientists are extremely concerned about global warming. Evidence suggests that the high levels of so-called greenhouse gases produced over the past half-century or so will result in higher temperatures worldwide over the coming decades. The additional heat could melt polar ice and raise the level of the ocean, causing flooding and eroding coastlines; it could also lead to more severe climate change with potentially devastating effects. Other scientists say that worries about global warming are overblown—that the temperature will not rise significantly (at least, not due to human activity), and that in any case, the results of a slightly increased average temperature would be mild rather than disastrous.

But no one disputes that the air has become quite polluted—you can verify this easily by looking out your window. One major component of air pollution is carbon dioxide (CO2), which is produced as a waste product when fossil fuels are burned. The level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen markedly since the beginning of the industrial age, and even if that change is not completely attributable to human progress, it’s not a good thing. Whether or not human-generated CO2 contributes to global warming, it clearly causes other problems. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Memetics

The science of idea propagation

Several years ago, a friend of mine gave me a book for my birthday called Thought Contagion. I had not heard of the book or its subject matter, the science of memetics, but I was fascinated by what I read. Author Aaron Lynch explained, concisely and convincingly, how some of the most significant beliefs in society came to be as popular as they are. By the end of the book I felt I understood, for the first time, a great many things that should have been obvious all along. I was even more surprised to discover that the things Lynch was saying were considered novel, and even somewhat controversial. What he described, simply and elegantly, is a compelling theory about the way beliefs spread.

What Memes May Come
The fundamental term in memetics is meme, which means a self-propagating idea. The term was borrowed from sociobiologist Richard Dawkins, who coined it in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. Roughly speaking, memetics applies the principles of evolution by natural selection to beliefs. In conventional evolution, genes that improve an organism’s ability to survive endure in future generations and spread throughout a population; those that hinder survival eventually disappear. By analogy, memetics says that ideas are subject to natural selection as well; those that most effectively promote their own survival multiply and spread, while those that don’t, don’t. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Intaglio Printing

Duplicating under pressure

As I look around at the many printed items within arm’s reach—books, magazines, a calendar, posters, checks, labels, boxes, and so on—I am vaguely aware that nearly all of them made their way through a printing press at some point. And, since I’ve used rubber stamps and stencils, I have an equally vague awareness that any printing process is based on putting ink or other coloring onto some parts of paper while keeping it off other parts. But despite having worked in the prepress field for a while, I never thought very deeply about the methods for transferring ink to paper; terms like “offset” and “lithography” had no specific meaning to me. Even after I finally grasped how laser printers work, ink-based printing methods remained a mystery.

Every time I realize that I’ve been living in blissful ignorance about something so common, I feel sort of guilty—it’s the same feeling I had when I was in high school and knew that I’d studied just enough to get through my exams, but not enough to actually understand or remember anything. So I began some remedial self-instruction in printing techniques, determined to fill in those embarrassing gaps in my knowledge. Along the way, I learned all sorts of interesting things, but one printing method particularly struck my fancy: intaglio (in-TAL-yo) printing. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Sea Monkeys

New life for an old fad

I recently went to a toy store with my son, and found myself marveling at how little had changed since I was a kid. Alongside all the miracles of modern toy science were dozens of items that I remembered seeing on toy store shelves 25 years or more ago, and they looked exactly the same—except for the price. Slinkies. Magic Rocks. Ant Farms. Silly Putty. Nerf balls. And, of course, Sea Monkeys. I vividly remember the ads in comic books and magazines promising “Instant Life—Just Add Water!” The ads pictured anthropomorphic sea creatures with tails, smiling faces, and crown-like protuberances on their heads. These intelligent and fun-loving creatures could be your new pets for just a few dollars.

I never managed to prevail upon my parents to spring for the Sea Monkeys, but I always wondered just how close the real thing would be to the hype. A couple of years ago, when Morgen bought a Sea Monkeys set as a present for a friend, I got to see them in action. The little critters were, unsurprisingly, not terribly impressive as pets. However, in terms of both biology and marketing they are a marvel every bit as interesting as those ads implied. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Invention of the Wheel

The best thing until sliced bread

On occasion, you may have heard it said of some wonderful gadget, “This is the greatest invention since sliced bread!” Such a comment is intended to be both a compliment and a reference to how revolutionary and world-changing the invention is. It’s worth bearing in mind, though, that while people have been slicing bread for eons, pre-sliced, packaged bread has only been available since 1928, when Otto Frederick Rohwedder introduced the world’s first mechanical bread slicer in Battle Creek, Michigan. I don’t know what revolutionary invention the bread-slicer was compared to when it first appeared, but sooner or later, it all goes back to the wheel. Nobody seems to be able to come up with an older, or more important, invention than that.

Giving It a Spin
Before I began my curatorial duties here at Interesting Thing of the Day, I had never really wondered when the wheel was invented, much less why it was invented. That’s obvious, isn’t it? Everyone knows the wheel was invented to enable people to move stuff around more easily—a revolutionary alternative (so to speak) to carrying, pushing, or dragging heavy objects. Surprisingly enough, some historians and archeologists aren’t so sure about that. There is in fact a fairly good case for the hypothesis that the wheel was invented to facilitate pottery making. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Passglas

Precision measure for drinking games

I never cease to be amazed at how frequently the interesting things I merely imagine turn out to be real. For instance, my relentless research in the field of goblets and challenges led me to wonder whether there might be some special type of goblet used in drinking games. I turned as usual to the sacred oracle, the source of all wisdom in the universe, for guidance. And what Google told me, after a fashion, was that such goblets do indeed exist. In fact, depending on one’s willingness to stretch the definition of goblet, which in my case is boundless, there may be several very different sorts of goblets that figure in drinking games.

For example, there’s a dice game played in Bolivia called Alalay. It’s quite similar to Yahtzee, in that it involves rolling five dice, with scoring based on the values of various number combinations. As in Yahtzee, the dice are placed in a small container and shaken before being thrown. In Alalay, this container, which is made of stiff leather, is called a goblet. Alalay is sometimes played as a drinking game, though the goblet itself is never used for alcohol; it wouldn’t do to get the dice wet. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Wine Color Taste Tests

Questioning common sense(s)

An article titled “Can You Tell Red From White?” in the online edition of Wine Spectator Magazine a couple of years ago began with this line:

The New Yorker threw down the gauntlet. Wine Spectator rose to the challenge.

Whatever else you may say about the two magazines in question or the qualifications of the authors they hire to write about wine, this much is clear: Wine Spectator missed a critical opportunity for an excellent pun. In fact, so blatant was their oversight that it casts grave doubts on the magazine’s editorial sensibilities. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Hymir's Cauldron

Thor’s goblet-throwing prize

You’d be surprised how few literary examples of goblet-throwing there are. I mean, sure, this sort of thing shows up every now and then in your basic fantasy novel, but history isn’t exactly littered with the shards of goblets broken dramatically at the climax of some great epic tale. Except for one, of course: the Hymiskviða (The Lay of Hymir), a poem that tells the story of Thor’s heroic acquisition of Hymir’s Cauldron. This is the sort of story you read to your kids at bedtime—if you happen to live in Iceland in the year 1300 or thereabouts. For those not familiar with the story, here is an extremely abbreviated and very slightly accurate retelling.

Give Me a Cauldron Large Enough, and a Place to Stand…
The gods of Asgard were looking for an eternal source of mead, and they demanded that Ægir, god of the sea, provide it for them. Ægir, unhappy with the tone of their request, said he’d only do it if the gods could supply him with a cauldron large enough, such enormous vessels being rather scarce. Tyr, the god of war and justice, knew just where to obtain such an item: his father, the giant Hymir, had one that was “a league deep” (that would be about three and a half miles—certainly large enough to keep the gods drunk for a few millennia). But Tyr knew his father wouldn’t acquiesce easily, so he enlisted the aid of Thor, the god of thunder, to trick Hymir into parting with the giant cauldron. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Great Cork Debate

Thinking outside the bottle

When I was in high school, I had a darkroom in the basement. Because I didn’t do a large quantity of film processing, one of my biggest concerns was that the expensive chemicals would go bad before I had a chance to use them. Since it is primarily exposure to oxygen that damages photographic chemicals, I stored them in air-evacuation containers, which are basically plastic bags inside boxes. As you drain out the chemical through a special spout that sticks through the box, the bag shrinks, thus making sure no air gets in. This solution is simple, elegant, and effective.

The very same laws of chemistry apply to wines, and that is why wine is sometimes sold “by the box” in air-evacuation containers. It keeps wine fresher longer, and is even less expensive, in many cases, than bottled wine. What’s not to like? And yet, boxed wine is routinely ridiculed as low-class. Everyone knows that any decent wine will be stored in a corked bottle. It’s just The Way Things Are. It’s not about oxidation, it’s about perception. You have to do things right. Buying wine in a box is tantamount to buying wine with a screw cap. It’s an indication of poor quality. Or is it? [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Bhutanese Archery

Shooting game

One day Morgen and I were having a brainstorming session, as we frequently do, about interesting things that might fit in with certain weeks’ themes. The expression “hit or miss” came up, and we began talking about things that involve hits and misses. Morgen said, “Do you know what the national sport in Bhutan is?” I was embarrassed to admit I did not even know exactly where Bhutan is located; it’s simply not a place I’ve ever spent much time thinking about. Morgen told me that Bhutan is between China and India. Although this didn’t give me any strong clues, I made what I thought was a safe guess: “Soccer.” That turned out to be a particularly bad guess, because in 2002, Bhutan’s national soccer team was ranked 202 out of 203 worldwide; FIFA sanctioned a special match that year, at the same time as the World Cup finals, between Bhutan and 203rd-ranked Montserrat; the match was covered in a documentary film called “The Other Final.”

In fact, Bhutan’s national sport is archery. That fact alone, I think, qualifies as an Interesting Thing, but there’s more to the story.

Weapons of Play
Bhutan is a Buddhist nation, and one of the central precepts of Buddhism is a reverence for all life. So it seems somewhat incongruous that the nation’s favorite game involves a hunting instrument (or, depending on how you look at it, a weapon of war). But in Bhutan, the bow and arrow can only be used for play. In fact, when making arrows, one can use only feathers that were found on the ground; to kill a bird to obtain its feathers would be considered wrong. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

English Female Social Titles

Miss-ing the point

My wife kept her name when we got married. This being the 21st century, I wouldn’t have thought that would be in any way surprising or problematic. But in the modern English-speaking world, linguistic habits haven’t quite caught up with changing social conventions—many people (and computers) still assume that when a man and woman get married, the woman will take on the man’s surname. As a result, we get mail addressed to “Mrs. Morgen Kissell” and even, bafflingly, “Mrs. Liz Kissell”—Morgen’s given first name is Elizabeth, but she has gone by her middle name since birth, and has never, ever been called Liz. At least no one, to my knowledge, has called her “Mrs. Joseph Kissell,” which I think both of us would find rather offensive.

As annoying as such mistakes can be, I do sympathize with folks who no longer feel they have a proper, respectful, and appropriate title to use when addressing women. The title “Miss,” which used to refer to an unmarried woman of any age, has fallen into disfavor, except for young girls. And “Mrs.” is supposed to refer to a married woman, but only when using her husband’s last name. (Morgen certainly is neither “Miss Jahnke” nor “Mrs. Kissell,” but she can’t be “Mrs. Jahnke” either, because that would imply my last name is Jahnke.) So that leaves “Ms.,” which virtually every style guide now proclaims as the only reasonable choice, but which many people hesitate to use because it feels like an odd, newfangled, non-word. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Pennsylvania Dutch

The Germans of Lancaster County

Pennsylvania is a state (well, commonwealth if you want to be completely nitpicky) known for its linguistic, uh, irregularities. In the western part of the state, where I grew up, many people speak an endearingly odd dialect of English called Pittsburghese. Some town names have pronunciations that utterly belie their foreign roots. DuBois is pronounced “dew boys”; North Versailles is “north ver-sales”; La Jose is “la Joes.” Then, of course, there are towns that simply have goofy names—Eighty Four, Slippery Rock, and Punxsutawney come to mind.

I’ve Been to Pennsylvania; Ask Me about Intercourse.
But to put all these oddities in perspective, western Pennsylvanians rightly consider their geographic nomenclature downright bland compared to what you’ll encounter on the other side of the state. Drive four hours east from Pittsburgh and you’re in Lancaster County, an area that attracts tourists by the thousands each year for no other reason than that they want to be able to say they went through Intercourse to get to Paradise. (This makes for a roundabout route, as it turns out, but that’s only fitting.) Other nearby towns include Blue Ball, Fertility, Gap, Bird-in-Hand, Smoketown, and even (I swear I am not making this up) Kissel Hill. These place names seem all the more amusing because the area is known for its religious conservatism, being home to large numbers of Amish and Old-Order Mennonite folk in particular. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Folk Etymology

Lazing your way to a bigger vocabulary

I need to say a few words about woodchucks. (First let me pause while you say the rhyme to yourself. Go on, you know you want to. Get it out of your system. Good.) I never understood what the word “chuck” was supposed to mean in the rhyme. Chuck isn’t often used as a verb; when it is, its most common meaning is “to throw” (as in, “Chuck that AOL CD in the trash”). This is naturally not the type of thing we expect a woodchuck to be capable of (as indicated by the counterfactual nature of the question in the rhyme). So the real question is why anyone would have given this animal such a nonsensical name in the first place.

(As an aside, woodchuck isn’t the only nonsensical name this animal has. It’s also called a groundhog. Oddly enough, “groundhog” is a fairly literal translation of the Dutch word aardvark, even though aardvarks don’t look anything like hogs. Woodchucks (Marmota monax) are rodents, or more precisely marmots, and are not even distantly related to either aardvarks or hogs. The most salient similarity among the three species is a propensity for burrowing.) [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Mincemeat

The dessert that eats like a meal

I set out to find a simple answer to a simple question: Why is there no meat in mincemeat? It was going to be a tidy tale of how a misnomer was born. Look up a few Web sites, collect a few facts, wrap them in a nice story, and on to the next project. As so often happens, however, my research took a rather circuitous path as I kept discovering connections and facts that I’d had no inkling of when I started out. The story of mincemeat is more interesting—and convoluted—than I ever imagined.

Mincemeat is, I must confess, a topic about which I have never felt much passion. In my family, mincemeat pie was simply one of a half dozen standard Christmas dessert choices. I rarely had room for more than two, and in my personal hierarchy of dessert preferences, mincemeat ranked well below Johnny Bull Pudding and blackberry pie. On the occasions I did eat mincemeat pie, it made no particular impression on me other than provoking a vague curiosity at its name, since whatever the filling was, it clearly did not contain any meat. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Urban Monorail Systems

The rise of Personal Rapid Transit

I’ve never regretted the decision I made a few years ago to live without a car. After all, if I walk down the hill a few blocks from my home, I can catch a subway, streetcar, or bus to take me nearly anywhere in San Francisco I may want to go. But every now and then, that “nearly” part causes me grief. There are certain spots in the city I can reach via public transit only by taking a subway, a streetcar, and two buses—and then walking for 20 minutes. The prospect of all that waiting and transferring, especially on weekends or when buses are running late, tempts me to take a taxi (which gets quite expensive) or rent a car (forcing me to worry about parking and traffic). Even in a compact city such as this one, getting from place to place quickly, inexpensively, and safely can be difficult. Owning a car can help in some ways, but for many of us, it would be more trouble and expense than it’s worth.

It’s a Bird, It’s a Train, It’s a…Taxi?
Several articles here on Interesting Thing of the Day have mentioned ways of addressing the urban transportation problem: car sharing programs, carfree cities (including Arcosanti), and personal flying machines, for example. A while back, a reader suggested I check out an innovative urban transportation system called SkyTran. Later, another reader wrote to tell me about a different urban mass-transit solution called the RUF (Rapid Urban Flexible) system. Although the two differ significantly, they are both monorail transit systems designed for cities. As I began reading about these, I discovered that they are just two among many similar proposed designs. Clearly, this was a meme worth investigating. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Carbon Sequestration

Greenhouse gas disposal techniques

As everyone knows, a lot of scientists are extremely concerned about global warming. Evidence suggests that the high levels of so-called greenhouse gases produced over the past half-century or so will result in higher temperatures worldwide over the coming decades. The additional heat could melt polar ice and raise the level of the ocean, causing flooding and eroding coastlines; it could also lead to more severe climate change with potentially devastating effects. Other scientists say that worries about global warming are overblown—that the temperature will not rise significantly (at least, not due to human activity), and that in any case, the results of a slightly increased average temperature would be mild rather than disastrous.

But no one disputes that the air has become quite polluted—you can verify this easily by looking out your window. One major component of air pollution is carbon dioxide (CO2), which is produced as a waste product when fossil fuels are burned. The level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen markedly since the beginning of the industrial age, and even if that change is not completely attributable to human progress, it’s not a good thing. Whether or not human-generated CO2 contributes to global warming, it clearly causes other problems. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Memetics

The science of idea propagation

Several years ago, a friend of mine gave me a book for my birthday called Thought Contagion. I had not heard of the book or its subject matter, the science of memetics, but I was fascinated by what I read. Author Aaron Lynch explained, concisely and convincingly, how some of the most significant beliefs in society came to be as popular as they are. By the end of the book I felt I understood, for the first time, a great many things that should have been obvious all along. I was even more surprised to discover that the things Lynch was saying were considered novel, and even somewhat controversial. What he described, simply and elegantly, is a compelling theory about the way beliefs spread.

What Memes May Come
The fundamental term in memetics is meme, which means a self-propagating idea. The term was borrowed from sociobiologist Richard Dawkins, who coined it in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. Roughly speaking, memetics applies the principles of evolution by natural selection to beliefs. In conventional evolution, genes that improve an organism’s ability to survive endure in future generations and spread throughout a population; those that hinder survival eventually disappear. By analogy, memetics says that ideas are subject to natural selection as well; those that most effectively promote their own survival multiply and spread, while those that don’t, don’t. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Intaglio Printing

Duplicating under pressure

As I look around at the many printed items within arm’s reach—books, magazines, a calendar, posters, checks, labels, boxes, and so on—I am vaguely aware that nearly all of them made their way through a printing press at some point. And, since I’ve used rubber stamps and stencils, I have an equally vague awareness that any printing process is based on putting ink or other coloring onto some parts of paper while keeping it off other parts. But despite having worked in the prepress field for a while, I never thought very deeply about the methods for transferring ink to paper; terms like “offset” and “lithography” had no specific meaning to me. Even after I finally grasped how laser printers work, ink-based printing methods remained a mystery.

Every time I realize that I’ve been living in blissful ignorance about something so common, I feel sort of guilty—it’s the same feeling I had when I was in high school and knew that I’d studied just enough to get through my exams, but not enough to actually understand or remember anything. So I began some remedial self-instruction in printing techniques, determined to fill in those embarrassing gaps in my knowledge. Along the way, I learned all sorts of interesting things, but one printing method particularly struck my fancy: intaglio (in-TAL-yo) printing. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Sea Monkeys

New life for an old fad

I recently went to a toy store with my son, and found myself marveling at how little had changed since I was a kid. Alongside all the miracles of modern toy science were dozens of items that I remembered seeing on toy store shelves 25 years or more ago, and they looked exactly the same—except for the price. Slinkies. Magic Rocks. Ant Farms. Silly Putty. Nerf balls. And, of course, Sea Monkeys. I vividly remember the ads in comic books and magazines promising “Instant Life—Just Add Water!” The ads pictured anthropomorphic sea creatures with tails, smiling faces, and crown-like protuberances on their heads. These intelligent and fun-loving creatures could be your new pets for just a few dollars.

I never managed to prevail upon my parents to spring for the Sea Monkeys, but I always wondered just how close the real thing would be to the hype. A couple of years ago, when Morgen bought a Sea Monkeys set as a present for a friend, I got to see them in action. The little critters were, unsurprisingly, not terribly impressive as pets. However, in terms of both biology and marketing they are a marvel every bit as interesting as those ads implied. [Article Continues…]

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