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From the archives…

Curling

Throwing stones for fun and profit

With apologies and all due respect to my Canadian friends and relatives, I have never had the remotest interest in hockey. I’ve tried to watch it a few times, but always found it tedious and hard to follow. Even though the pace of the game is often frantic, there is typically a lot of time between goals, during which I can rarely tell where the puck actually is. Where confrontations between players seem to be the most exciting part of the game for many fans, I don’t enjoy watching people knock each other around. There is, however, another popular Canadian sport that involves sliding objects around on ice: curling. Unlike hockey, curling moves at a fairly slow pace and doesn’t require protective gear.

Stones Without Sticks
When I first heard a description of curling, it sounded too weird and dull to attract my interest. But the first time I saw curling on TV, I had a revelation. “Oh,” I thought, “it’s just like boules on ice.” There is a class of games, including lawn bowling, bocce, boules, shuffleboard, and (in some cases) marbles, that all have the same basic idea in common. Taking turns, competitors launch (throw, roll, or slide) a projectile (ball or puck) toward a target. After several rounds, the player or team with the projectile closest to the target wins; a large part of the strategy is displacing your opponent’s projectiles while protecting your own. I don’t have a name for this general type of game, but once I realized curling fit into this familiar category, I warmed to it considerably. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Temperate Rain Forests

Trees of life

If you ask the average person to name any three countries that have rain forests, chances are their minds will jump to tropical regions—Central and South America, equatorial Africa, or the islands of southeast Asia. Most people would not include, say, Canada on their lists, because as everyone knows, rain forests are consistently hot places. And this is exactly what I always believed too. Several years ago when I was living in Canada, my wife, Morgen, mentioned in passing, “Oh, we’ve got rain forests here.” And I thought: “Yeah, right. And deserts too. What else did Santa Claus tell you?” But it seems Mr. Kringle was right after all. Canada does indeed have rain forests—just not of the tropical variety, which was the only kind I had ever heard of. (As a matter of fact, there are also deserts in Canada…but that’s a story for another day.)

Moisten and Seal
The main thing that determines whether a forest should be considered a rain forest is the amount of rainfall it receives—generally, the threshold is about 100 inches (2.5m) per year. This high moisture content—concentrated still further into fog by the leaves that form the canopy—encourages the heavy growth of plants, which in turn support animal life. When evergreen forests appear along the coast of a landmass with mountains on the other side, the mountains tend to trap the moist air blowing in from the sea, producing an unusually heavy rainfall in the forest. Voilà: rain forest. Such conditions exist in several parts of the world, including the west coast of North America (from Alaska as far south as northern California), the west coast of Chile, parts of Tasmania and New Zealand, and even a small patch of Norway. [Article Continues…]

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Monday, June 28, 2004

Moxy Früvous

A band, a plan, a fan

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From the archives…

The Capilano Suspension Bridge

Vancouver from another point of view

Every time I mention to someone that I spent three years living in Vancouver, British Columbia, I get the same response. “Oh, I’ve heard Vancouver is such a beautiful city. I’d love to visit there some time.” Dozens of people have said the same thing to me, almost as if reciting a line from an advertising campaign. And it’s true: Vancouver is a beautiful city—whether you’re talking about the mountains, forests, and ocean or the glistening modern skyline of glass skyscrapers. There’s a reason so many films and TV shows are shot on location in and around Vancouver. If it’s scenery you want, this is the place. Vancouver, like any other large Canadian city, also has plenty of cultural depth—an excellent symphony orchestra, live theater, cinema, folk music, improv comedy, professional sports, and museums of every kind. There are major universities, large industries, and rich natural resources, not to mention a vibrant multi-ethnic population. In short, no one needs an excuse to visit Vancouver. There are so many things to do and see there that it’s a compelling tourist destination; undoubtedly this figured in the city’s successful bid to host the 2010 winter Olympics.

The Draw of the Bridge
Having said that, I was shocked and baffled to learn that the most popular tourist attraction in the city—nay, in the entire province—is a footbridge. Incredible but true: each year over 800,000 people pay to walk across the Capilano Suspension Bridge. Now it is indeed quite a nice bridge, as suspension footbridges go. Strung high above the scenic Capilano River, it offers a lovely view. And it’s an impressive feat of engineering too (about which more in a moment). But of all the things that might attract a visitor to the southwestern corner of mainland British Columbia, the enormous appeal of this bridge has always seemed quite strange to me. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Holographic Paradigm

The way the universe really works?

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From the archives…

Most Recent Common Ancestors

Eve, Charlemagne, and you

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From the archives…

Global Energy Network

World peace through sharing electrons

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From the archives…

Social Networking Systems

Getting to know you, digitally

The first time I saw a Web browser—more than a decade ago—I didn’t understand what the big deal was. If I needed to communicate with someone over the internet, I could use email. If I wanted to download a file, I could use FTP. And if I wanted to find information, I could use Gopher. (If you have to ask what Gopher is, by the way, you don’t need to know.) I didn’t see much point to the whole idea of linking from one document to another—but then, at that time, there were very few pages on the Web. A few months later when the numbers began to multiply significantly, I quickly understood that the value of the network grew along with the number of pages and links between them. So I decided to make my own personal home page, featuring links to my favorite sites as well as all sorts of information about myself. And I do mean all sorts. Back then, I assumed that the only people who would ever see my home page were my friends and colleagues, or people they’d told about the page. So besides a massive list of nearly every book, movie, and CD I’d ever enjoyed, I included some fairly personal autobiographical data—and even my street address, phone number, and travel schedule.

Sure enough, that URL did get spread around from friend to friend. Someone would write to me saying that so-and-so had sent them a link and they’d enjoyed reading my page. So we’d strike up a conversation. Many of those conversations led to genuine, lasting friendships. My naïve younger self assumed this was exactly the way the internet was supposed to work. Now that I’m older and wiser, I understand that the internet is a favorite stalking ground of hackers, spammers, identity thieves, and other evildoers. I simply can’t trust the entire world to treat my personal information with care and respect. But I miss the good old days when I was able to be more open about myself, and consequently formed more and closer relationships with other people using the internet. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Microclimates

Don’t like the weather? Cross the street.

I have lived in many different parts of North America, but for the past decade or so, all of the places I’ve lived have been on the west coast, no more than a few miles from the ocean. There are many things to like about the west coast, but I’m especially fond of the weather. Each city has its specialty—San Diego is famous for sun, San Francisco for fog, and Vancouver for rain. But what this entire strip of land has in common is a relatively temperate climate year-round. Summers are rarely hot, and snow is almost unheard of. Some of my friends complain about the lack of seasonal variation, but not me. I figure, I can go and visit the snow or the sun for a week or two every year if I really miss it—and that’s enough for me.

Besides, we do have seasons, just not the same kinds of seasons as the rest of the continent. Here in San Francisco, the months of June through August are usually cool, especially near the ocean; the hottest month is October. Tourists invariably get this wrong, shivering in shorts in the summer and sweating in the fall. But our generally mild climate has another interesting twist that makes it difficult for me to give a meaningful answer when someone from another part of the world asks me how the weather is. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Six Degrees of Separation

Is it a small world after all?

At family reunions, my mother used to joke about the fact that actress Shirley Jones (of “The Partridge Family” fame) never showed up. Apparently someone had figured out that Jones was a distant relation by marriage, and more than once I heard of plans by one of my cousins to invite her to a reunion just for fun. Whether an invitation was ever actually sent I don’t know, nor can I recall the exact chain of relatives that supposedly connected me to Jones. But I always enjoyed the thought of being related, however distantly, to a celebrity. I imagined showing up at a dinner or award ceremony where I’d be introduced to the rich and famous: “This is Joe Kissell, my third cousin-in-law, once removed.” I didn’t suspect it at the time, but if a prominent sociological theory is correct, I may have indirect social connections to millions or even billions of people.

The theory in question, of course, is that of “Six Degrees of Separation”—roughly, the notion that anyone can form a chain of personal contacts leading to any other person, with no more than six links in the chain. Nearly everyone has heard of this idea, thanks to John Guare’s 1990 play “Six Degrees of Separation” and the “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” game that became popular in the late 1990s. But what many people don’t realize is that this game has its roots in serious sociological research, and that work is currently underway to establish the validity of the theory scientifically. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Invisible Computing

Putting information processing in its place

With each passing year, computers become faster and more powerful, not to mention smaller, cheaper, and more stylish. But whether they are becoming easier to use is a matter of considerable debate. On the one hand you have technology pundits who point out that Mac OS X is a great leap forward in usability from Mac OS 9 or that Windows XP makes computing a lot simpler than Windows 2000 did. I don’t dispute those claims, as far as they go. But on the other side of the debate you have people complaining—rightly so—that improvements in computers have not resulted in shorter work weeks or reduced stress. We spend more time per day in front of our computers now than ever before, and on the whole, this time is not relaxing or fulfilling. And although operating systems have matured and improved, the range of activities we’re expected to be able to perform using computers, and the complexity of individual tasks, have increased tremendously. The net result is that computers require an increasing amount of our time, money, and attention—valuable resources most of us would like to use elsewhere.

It’s Not the Mousetrap, It’s the Mouse
In the world of computer software, in which I’ve worked for many years, the solution to the problem of computer complexity is always assumed to be improving the user interface. If an activity currently requires three mouse clicks, change it so that it only takes one. If text on the screen is too confusing, replace it with a picture. If a menu contains too many commands, group them into smaller lists. And so on. These are all important and worthwhile steps, and I’ve spent a lot of time and effort learning about the principles of good user interface design. But when all is said and done, this is an inadequate solution to the problem. You may have, for example, the slickest and easiest-to-use disk repair utility in the world, but a more fundamental problem is that you need to use such a tool in the first place. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Milk in a Box

Losing the bottle

I’ve managed to suppress most of the memories of my college days—quite wisely, I think—but every once in a while some random factoid springs to mind. For example, I remember very clearly the wonder I felt one evening in the mid-1980s when I walked into a New Jersey supermarket and saw a box of milk on the shelf. At first I didn’t comprehend what I was looking at. I had to study the package at some length before I grasped that this was not powdered milk or some milk-like non-dairy product. Sitting there quite happily at room temperature was a container of milk that, so the label claimed, would remain fresh without refrigeration for months. I couldn’t figure out how they’d managed to pull this off, but I was very excited. Just think of the convenience of not having to buy milk every few days, not to mention saving space in your refrigerator! I bought a box and tried it. OK, the flavor was a bit less than fantastic, but still…pour it on some cereal or in your coffee and you’d never know the difference. This revolutionary development seemed so obviously useful to me that I was certain all milk would be sold this way within a couple of years.

Time passed. The boxes of milk, instead of multiplying on store shelves as I’d expected, disappeared almost entirely. I found this completely baffling. Why hadn’t this sort of milk caught on? I was even more surprised when I went to Europe and discovered that in many places, it’s much harder to find refrigerated milk than boxes or bottles of milk stored at room temperature. So clearly the technology to package milk this way was still in use…but did those Europeans know something that we didn’t? Or was it the other way around? I started wondering about this again recently and decided to investigate. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Cheese Course

Recipe for a civilized meal

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From the archives…

Honey as Medicine

Sweet relief

When I get a sore throat, I always find a cup of tea with some honey very soothing. But thanks to my proper Western scientific conditioning, I always assumed that the restorative power of honey was mostly in my head. Sure, it tastes good and has a pleasant texture that coats my irritated throat, but it’s practically pure sugar, after all. What good could it possibly do me other than diminishing my perception of discomfort for a few minutes? So I’ve been content in my belief that honey is little more than a tasty placebo. Now, ironically enough, my convictions are being challenged, as researchers are turning up new evidence of honey’s medical benefits left and right.

Historically, honey has been used as a folk remedy in cultures around the world for millennia. It has been prescribed informally as a cure for smallpox, baldness, eye diseases, and indigestion. It’s even been used as a contraceptive. As with most natural “cures” unsupported by scientific studies, I sort of chuckle and sigh when I read about things like this—honey may be a silly substitute for real medicine, but at least it’s not bloodletting. However, in this case, the bees may have the last laugh. It turns out that honey’s properties make it a surprisingly effective cure-all. Or, let’s say, cure-much. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Girolle

One small step for cheese engineering

Switzerland is a country known for, among other things, cheese and engineering. These are two concepts that, while important individually, generally do not go together. (In fact, I have been wary of cheese engineering ever since I read The Absurdly Silly Encyclopedia and Fly Swatter by Jovial Bob Stine in 1978. It cautioned the young reader not to build a raft out of cheese, because cheese does not float.) Nevertheless, the great minds of Switzerland have produced a fascinating, interdependent pairing of cheese and machine, neither of which is complete without the other. As both a cheese lover and a gadget lover, I was delighted to discover a unique device called a Girolle. It’s the world’s most clever cheese slicer, and it’s designed to work with just one very special kind of cheese.

Not Your Father’s Cheese
Growing up in the United States, I was conditioned to think of cheese as an ingredient or a topping, not as an independent food. Macaroni and cheese, cheeseburgers, cheese pizza, cheese puffs, and Parmesan sprinkled on spaghetti—these were cheese to me. I turned up my nose at sliced cheese served on a cracker, which seemed unnatural. Everyone knew that the cheese on your cracker was supposed to have been squirted out of a can. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Mead

The prototypical alcoholic beverage

The first time I went to a Renaissance fair, I didn’t quite know what to expect. I understood from the ads that there would be jousting, music, crafts, and people walking around in period clothing, but that’s about it. In theory, a Renaissance fair is supposed to be a re-creation of 15th-century England. That sounded interesting, but I wasn’t entirely sure what it meant. As I explored the fairgrounds, playing primitive arcade games, sampling the crafts, and watching the shows, I was alternately delighted and annoyed by the ubiquitous displays of pseudoauthenticity. I smiled when a guy walked up to me and, wanting to know the time, asked “How stands the hour?” but just rolled my eyes every time I saw a merchant with a sign that read “Master Card and Lady Visa welcome here.” Everyone seemed to speak faux Shakespeare. Those in costume wore custom-made boots that looked believable until you saw the Vibram soles. And everything, of course, had a commercial gimmick. But no matter—it was still great fun.

It was not long before I turned my attention to acquiring some authentic Renaissance food. The roasted turkey legs were quite popular, as was corn on the cob—both believable as period foods. I tried something called a “Scottish Egg,” which was a hard-boiled egg, rolled in batter, covered with ground pork, and deep-fried. Appalling—they might as well have called it Death on a Stick—but delicious. And of course, I needed something to wash all this down with. I couldn’t possibly bring myself to buy a Coke or a Budweiser (both readily available), so I looked for the most authentic-sounding drink I could find. Sure enough, some of the vendors were selling mead. All I knew was the name—I had no idea what was in it or what it tasted like—but I proffered my gold (card) and got a nice authentic plastic cup full of a pale yellow liquid. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

French Butter Dishes

Fresh butter without refrigeration

A few years ago, when Interesting Thing of the Day was just a gleam in my eye, I started asking people for their ideas on interesting topics I should write about. One of my wife’s friends made the very first suggestion. “You should write about French butter dishes,” she said, “—you know, the kind that keep butter fresh without refrigeration.” I had no idea what she was talking about, but I wrote it down on my list anyway. After unsuccessfully trying to locate one of these things in France, I did a few Web searches and sure enough, French butter dishes—like the one now in my kitchen—are quite interesting.

The idea behind French butter dishes is pure, ingenious simplicity. Butter at room temperature quickly turns rancid when exposed to oxygen, so the usual means of preserving it is to store it in the refrigerator. But all that’s really needed is to keep air away from the butter. A French butter dish does this by using water to form a seal between the butter and the air. There are two parts to the dish: a smaller, bell- or cone-shaped piece that sits on a wide base, and a second, larger container. You fill the bell up with butter, put water in the larger container, and invert the bell into the water. Because butter is basically an oil, it won’t mix with the water, and as long as it’s not too hot, it will remain sticky enough to stay inside the bell. You can keep this on your kitchen table so that butter is always available without having to soften it. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Raclette

The cheese that eats like a meal

The term cheesy in English can, and sometimes does, mean “containing cheese.” More often, however, it’s used to mean “cheap,” “shoddy,” or “culturally infelicitous.” Sometimes these two meanings come together, typically in reference to a ’70s-style electric fondue pot. Raise your hand if there’s one in your cupboard that you received as a gift and haven’t used in at least two years. That appears to be…yep, pretty much all of us. OK, put your hand back down; you’ll need it to scroll. But please, for a moment, set aside any prejudice you may have about Swiss tabletop cheese-melting devices. Today I’d like to tell you about another one that is both more (in the good sense) and less (in the bad sense) cheesy.

In Switzerland, the trains run on time—thanks, no doubt, to the seriousness with which the population treats clocks and watches. In much the same way, the Swiss take cheese extremely seriously. There is no such thing as “Swiss cheese” in the sense that Americans think of it—American Swiss cheese is a pale knockoff of Emmenthal, just one of hundreds of varieties of cheese produced by Switzerland’s numerous (and apparently quite happy) cows. And for some of these cheeses, only one method of serving is considered appropriate—Tête de Moine must be shaved on a Girolle; Gruyère is typically melted in a fondue pot. But there’s another type of cheese that requires an exacting preparation ritual, though it’s little known in North America. The cheese is called raclette—a semi-soft, off-white, fairly mild cheese that melts extremely well. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Lucid Dreams

Waking up to the reality of dreaming

I dream that I am standing in a very unfamiliar building. Something about the strangeness of my surroundings leads me to wonder if I might not be dreaming. I decide to perform a little experiment to determine whether it really is a dream or not. There is a short flight of stairs ahead of me going down to a lower level. I know that if I jump off the top step and find I can fly, it must be a dream, whereas if land normally, it isn’t. So I jump, and sure enough, I float down to the next level. “Cool!” I think, “I am dreaming—that must mean I can do anything I want!” But I can’t decide what to do next. I try walking through some people but that doesn’t work, and after a few minutes I slip back into the unconscious world of regular dreams. Nevertheless, the experience is fascinating and exhilarating. Being able to consciously influence the course of my dream is a wonderfully novel sensation.

A lucid dream is simply one in which you realize that you are dreaming. The dream I just described happened about a year ago—and it happened spontaneously, without any effort or intention on my part. Since then, I’ve read about and practiced a variety of methods for inducing lucid dreams deliberately. Although I can’t yet dream lucidly on command, my success rate has gradually improved. For me, this is a purely recreational activity, but for centuries lucid dreaming, in one form or another, has been practiced with great seriousness in certain religious and philosophical traditions. Tibetan Buddhism, in particular, has an ancient discipline of meditative techniques designed to encourage not just lucid dreaming, but a continuously unbroken state of consciousness, while sleeping and awake. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Iris Scans

A new angle on photo identification

How many passwords do you have? For the average computer user, the number can range from dozens to hundreds. It seems like every time I turn around another Web site asks me to come up with a password; I need them to get access to bank accounts, utilities, discussion boards, travel reservations, and countless other services. Security experts tell us that you should never use the same password twice, that passwords should never contain words found in a dictionary, and that they should include combinations of upper- and lowercase letters, numbers, and special characters such as punctuation. Wow. I try to follow this advice for the most part, but the more secure and diverse I make my passwords, the harder they are to remember. A forgotten password is useless, and if I write it down, I take a risk that someone will find it. As long as someone can guess or steal my passwords, my money and important data are vulnerable. The same goes for PINs used to get money from ATMs or codes used to unlock doors and gates. A few months ago I needed to make a deposit into a bank account I rarely use, and although I had my card with me, I had forgotten my PIN and had to return home to look it up on the notice my bank sent me way back when. My money was safe, all right—even from me!

The basic question a password attempts to answer is: Are you who you claim to be? I can walk up to a bank teller with a name and account number, but if the teller doesn’t know me personally, he has to have some way to confirm my identity. Photo ID and signatures are often used for this purpose—on drivers’ licenses, passports, credit cards, and checks. But photos and signatures are relatively easy to forge, and they do little good when conducting business over the Web. This is why, increasingly, companies and governments are turning to biometric data—measurements of some aspect of the body—to solve problems of identification and authentication. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Eye Language

Look what you’re saying

A while back, someone remarked in passing that a mutual friend had “such beautiful blue eyes.” I was surprised—and a bit embarrassed—to realize that in all the years I’d known the woman in question, I had never noticed the color of her eyes. In North America, social convention dictates that we look someone directly in the eye while conversing, so failing to register my friend’s eye color implied that my communication skills were faulty too. But if I can be forgiven for ignoring the iris, the pupil is something that clearly deserves a great deal of attention, because it can tell us much more than the words someone speaks.

Size Matters
Would you believe that medical science has come up with two different words that mean “the measurement of pupil diameter”? It’s true. The general term, pupillometry, refers to any pupil measurement—usually performed using infrared cameras or sensors, because visible light would cause the pupils to contract and throw off the readings. A more specific term, pupillometrics, refers to the evaluation of one’s pupil size as an indicator of interest or emotion. University of Chicago biopsychologist Eckhard Hess coined the term in 1975. Hess discovered that when someone looks at something that causes positive feelings (or even just sparks interest), the pupils dilate—whereas the pupils contract when the person looks at unpleasant or uninteresting things. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Brain Machines

Blinking your way to relaxation

I love gadgets. A quick glance around my office, living room, or Web site would probably make that pretty clear. In particular, I seem to have the gene that favors small, battery-powered boxes with blinking lights—my iPod, PowerBook, cell phone, digital camera, and PDA, for example, all meet that general description. Even so, I only buy gadgets that I think will actually perform a useful activity or make my life better in some way. Tempted as I was by that watch with the built-in Global Positioning System receiver or the current selection of electronic book readers, I had to admit that these things would not in fact be valuable as part of my lifestyle. It was therefore with a mixture of gadget-crazed glee and circumspect puzzlement that I first looked at a device sometimes known as a “brain machine” a number of years ago at a Sharper Image store.

Relaxation in a Box
That it was a small box containing batteries and blinking lights was enough to induce me to pick it up; it also had cables running to a set of headphones and what appeared to be sunglasses with a bunch of LEDs mounted on the inside. The marketing propaganda said that the device was supposed to promote relaxation and “synchronize” one’s brain waves, whatever that meant. Out of idle curiosity I put the apparatus on and pressed the button. The LEDs on the glasses started blinking and synthesized sounds poured out of the headphones. I only used the device for a minute or so, but I was almost immediately struck by the sensation that I was somehow moving into an altered state of consciousness. To be quite honest, it was a bit freaky—fascinating, sure, but not something I really cared to experience standing in the middle of a store. I thought it would be well worth about US$50 to take home and experiment with, but the cost was quite a few times that, and I really couldn’t bring myself to spend hundreds of dollars on a box that made sunglasses light up. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Bionic Eyes

Seeing is believing

As a kid in the mid-’70s, one of my favorite TV shows was The Six Million Dollar Man. When astronaut and test pilot Steve Austin was critically injured in a plane crash, government scientists decided to replace his damaged body parts with electromechanical equivalents, making him the first bionic (or cybernetic) human. The cost for two new legs, a right arm, and a left eye turned out to be $6 million, but for that price Steve Austin was able not merely to walk again, but to outrun cars, lift enormous weights, and see faraway objects with a built-in zoom lens.

The decisive statement, which we heard as a voiceover at the beginning of each week’s episode, was, “We can rebuild him. We have the technology.” Even though I knew the show was science fiction, I assumed we really did have the technology back then, or at least something close to it—and that the cost was the main reason people weren’t being fitted with bionic limbs on a regular basis. Of course, cost aside, we didn’t then, and still don’t, have the ability to come anywhere near that sort of body-part replacement. Medical science has made great advances in the development of prosthetic limbs, and perhaps someday, decades from now, amputees will be able to receive something like Steve Austin’s bionic arms and legs—though I wouldn’t count on superhuman strength and speed. But the eye…that’s another story. Even today, restoring sight to the blind seems like the province of myth and science fiction. In many ways, it’s a much harder problem to solve than creating an artificial arm or leg, but researchers are making significant progress, and the reality of a bionic eye may not be so far-fetched after all. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Superautomatic Coffee Machines

The lazy way to make a perfect cup of coffee

There are those who believe half the pleasure of a great cup of coffee comes from the ritual of making it. The details of the ritual vary from person to person and place to place, but the desired effect is the same: a perfect cup of hot, rich, fresh coffee. “Perfect,” of course, is quite subjective. Among people who take coffee very seriously, there is a great deal of disagreement as to what types of bean, roast, and grind make the best coffee, how concentrated the grounds should be, whether the coffee should be infused into the water by dripping, steeping, or steaming, and many other details. Regardless of the precise outcome, however, coffee purists will insist that if you want coffee done right, you must make it by hand, with a great deal of care and attention to detail.

I certainly count myself among those who cherish a perfect cup of coffee. And yet, I’ve never been much for ritual. All things being equal, I’d prefer to have my coffee with as little effort as possible. I was delighted to discover that technology allows me to have my café and drink it too, thanks to a breed of coffee maker known as a superautomatic. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Dream Groups

Intramural introspection

I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Unbeknownst to most of my friends and family, I’m really an action hero. Several times each month, I go on dangerous assignments to exotic locations, where I narrowly escape death, rescue the hostages, recover the stolen chip, round up the bad guys, and generally keep civilization safe from evil. Admirers call me “Indiana Joe.” Of course, it’s no big deal, thanks to my super powers that enable me to dodge bullets, read minds, and fly off into the sunset. When I return from one of my adventures, I can almost hear the fanfare…no, wait, that’s my alarm clock. Sometimes I awake from one of my dreams uncertain of whether it really happened or not, and with a nagging sense that a vital piece of information has been lost—that the dream was trying to tell me something important. When I need to get to the bottom of a dream, I take it to Dreams Group, a small circle of friends that meets monthly for a unique kind of dream analysis.

The Woman of My Dreams
I first became aware of dream groups a number of years ago, when someone made an announcement after a church service that such a group was going to form. At first, I wasn’t even sure what they meant by “dreams”—I thought it might have been dreams in the sense of aspirations, rather than the visions that occur while we sleep. Either way, I had plenty to work with, but I had no idea what I’d be getting myself into if I joined. A week later, the group’s leader asked all interested parties to gather for more information. I was still wavering when I saw a very attractive young woman join the group. At that point I immediately determined that I was interested. (I thought the group might be worthwhile too.) [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Paris Catacombs

Man-made calcium deposits

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

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

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From the archives…

Oil from Garbage

Modern-day alchemy

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

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

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From the archives…

San Francisco's Terra Infirma

Ship to shore

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

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

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From the archives…

Truffles

Fungus of the gods

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

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

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From the archives…

Museums of Interesting Things

Putting the muse back in museum

There are two kinds of museums: museums where I get sleepy after about an hour of looking around, and museums of interesting things. I say this tongue-in-cheek, of course: all museums contain things that are interesting to someone. But interesting is in the eye of the beholder. Personally, I don’t get terribly excited viewing, say, Italian Renaissance paintings—even though I appreciate the quality and emotional depth of the art in principle. After looking at a few dozen of these, I slip quickly into a “been-there-done-that-time-for-a-nap” mood. On the other hand, a science museum can keep my attention indefinitely, while it has exactly the opposite effect on my wife, who will gladly ponder the da Vincis and Raphaels for hours on end.

I’ve been to dozens, maybe hundreds, of museums in my life, ranging from massive institutions such as the Louvre and the British Museum to the tiny Voodoo Museum in New Orleans and San Francisco’s Musée Mécanique, a collection of mechanical games and arcade amusements from the early 20th century. For me, what makes a museum interesting is not its size or fame but its ability to capture my imagination with things I’ve never encountered before. More often than not, this rules out the big, impressive museums of art, natural history, and the like. [Article Continues…]

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