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From the archives…

Muffin Tops

Bottomless enjoyment

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

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

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From the archives…

Mantle Convection

Currents under the earth’s crust

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

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

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From the archives…

Crème Brûlée

Why every kitchen needs a blowtorch

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

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

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From the archives…

Uffington White Horse

Ancient hillside chalk art

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From the archives…

Pie Funnels

A piecrust’s best friend

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

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

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From the archives…

Snow Crusts

A few words about the surface of snow

For decades there has been a popular belief—alternately debunked and defended by various linguists and anthropologists—that there are a great many Eskimo words for snow. More specifically, the belief is that while there are lots of specific words for different kinds of snow, there is no word that can be used to refer to any type of snow generically—that is, no direct synonym for the English word snow. Some accounts claim that there are nine different Eskimo snow words; some say there are dozens; others insist there are hundreds of distinct words for snow. Critics argue that there may be just two Eskimo root words for snow (from which all other words are derived), and that in any case, English, too, has plenty of different terms for snow—flake, flurry, powder, blizzard, avalanche, and so on. I do not intend to resolve this debate here, but I would like to show that when it comes to talking about a snow crust—a thin hard layer on top of snow—English can more than hold its own.

First, a brief discursus.

The Snowball Effect
To even begin to fathom how many Eskimo words there may be for snow, one must define what is meant by Eskimo—a term sometimes regarded as offensive when applied to people of certain ethnicities. Linguistically speaking, the word Eskimo properly refers to two language groups: Yup’ik (which consists of five distinct languages) and Inuit. Although Inuit is technically a language, it’s also a dialect continuum, meaning that dialects spoken in neighboring areas are mutually intelligible, while dialects whose speakers are separated by great distances are not. Meanwhile, some people use Inuit to refer to the people themselves while reserving the term Inuktitut for the language they speak, but this is not entirely accurate either. Depending on how you count, there are four or five major Inuit dialect groups, not all of which use the term Inuktitut to refer to their own language. And by the time you count all the individual dialects and the variety of names they use…well, you have almost as many names as you do people—the total number of people who speak any Eskimo language is less than 80,000. In any case, my point is that saying there are many “Eskimo” words for snow is sort of like saying there are many “European” words for love: trivially true but irrelevant. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

A Perfect Baguette

Daily bread as it was intended to be

Last spring my wife, Morgen, and I had the great privilege of spending a month in Europe. Our goal for that trip, unlike ordinary vacations, was not primarily to see lots of museums and tourist attractions; instead, we wanted to live like locals and see what ordinary daily life would be like in another part of the world. We rented an apartment in Paris so we could shop for fresh foods and cook our own meals rather than eating out all the time. What I was looking forward to most eagerly about this arrangement was the ready availability of fresh baguettes every day, direct from the bakery.

Your Daily Bread
In France, going to your local bakery to buy fresh bread every morning is as normal as putting your socks on before your shoes. How else would it be done? And yet this simple ritual is utterly foreign to most North Americans. Here, we expect our bread to be rectangular, pre-sliced, and treated with preservatives so that it will stay “fresh” (i.e., mold-free) for two weeks. We perceive this as a benefit, a convenience. After all, bread is not usually eaten by itself; the point of bread is to provide a vehicle for butter and jelly or to keep your ham and cheese off your fingers. It’s only proper that it be as bland and easy to use as the individually wrapped slices of the stuff we generously refer to as “cheese.” Not so in France, where people take bread very seriously, with high expectations of quality. Baguettes, the quintessential French bread, are by their very nature best when fresh out of the oven—or at least consumed within a few hours of baking. Within 24 hours, most baguettes are too hard and dry to eat. But this isn’t a problem that calls for a technological solution (or a loosening of standards); it’s just The Way Things Are. And it’s worth it, because a fresh French baguette is a truly glorious food. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Helioseismology

Listening to the inside of the Sun

Although in general I have tremendous faith in science, there are a few concepts I’ve always had some trouble grasping. For example, textbooks have told us for decades—with great certainty—details about the interior of the Earth. We know how thick the crust and mantle are, what the core is made of, and how hot it is (among many other facts), even though no one has managed to dig or drill even halfway through the crust—the thinnest and outermost layer of the planet. How do people figure this stuff out? Yes, I know it’s all about earthquakes. When the ground shakes, sensitive instruments all over the world make detailed measurements. By carefully analyzing the way vibrations move from one point to another, scientists are able to infer a great deal about the planet’s structure. Although I accept that this is true, the actual physics and mathematics involved are so far beyond me that I can’t help harboring a slight doubt. Maybe the core is really made of flubber or, say, chocolate pudding, rather than iron.

If I wonder at proclamations about the composition of our own planet, you can imagine how I felt when I read that astronomers are now making claims about the interior of the Sun. Not only that, these claims are based on measurements of sound, which I am reliably informed does not travel through space. After a few minutes of eye rubbing and brow furrowing, I began the long, slow process of trying to wrap my brain around the emerging science of helioseismology, the study of vibrations that occur within the Sun and what they tell us about its interior. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Eye-to-Eye Video

Solving the eye contact problem

Perched atop my computer is a shiny, high-tech video camera. Through the miracles of modern technology, I can have live video chats with friends or business associates on the other side of the country or the other side of the world, without even paying long-distance phone charges. Although I could opt for an audio-only conversation or even the text-only format of email or instant messaging, there’s something about seeing another person’s face that makes communication much richer and more satisfying. Using similar technology, I’ve participated in countless videoconferences involving multiple people in each of two or more locations, using cameras mounted on large video monitors and special microphones so that we can all see and hear each other. This is all good. But there’s one thing about the current state of the art in video communication that still bothers me greatly: the inability to make eye contact with the person or people on the other end. This was never a problem on Star Trek, which was of course the source of all my technological expectations.

Look at Me When You Say That
If you have ever tried video chats or videoconferencing yourself, you undoubtedly know what I mean. If not, let me describe what’s going on. The camera that’s pointing at your face is positioned above, below, or to the side of your display. This means the angle at which you’re viewing the screen is different from the angle at which the camera (and therefore the person on the other end) sees you—an effect known as parallax. Only if you were looking directly into the camera would the viewer have the impression you’re looking into his or her eyes. As a result, while you see your friend’s image on the screen, your friend appears to be looking down (or in some direction other than right at you), and you appear the same way on your friend’s screen. You could, of course, position the camera directly in front of your own screen, but then, the camera itself would block your view of the person on the other end. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

White LEDs

How to make a blue light special

Thirty years ago, the most interesting thing I knew of was the digital watch. Never mind that digital watches were harder to read than analog watches, that they went through a set of batteries every few weeks, that they cost a small fortune. These things were not important. What was important was cutting-edge style. You could now wear a computerized device on your wrist that, at the press of a button, would display the time in glowing red LED numerals! How cool was that? When my dad got his first digital watch—a huge, clunky thing—I was deeply envious that he had the best toy in the house.

Just a few years later, though, digital watches had moved into the mainstream. I distinctly remember, as a nine-year-old in 1976, saving my allowance to buy my very own $20 digital watch. I was the first kid in my school to have one, the envy of all my friends. (Yes, my geek roots go way back.) It would be a few years yet before liquid-crystal displays (LCDs) became common; in the meantime, I was thrilled to have a status symbol courtesy of LEDs. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Grass Photographs

Photosynthetic art

When I was about 12 (give or take a couple of years), I had what I thought was a fantastic idea. I was going to build myself a volcano. I’m not talking about a little model made out of clay with vinegar and baking soda for the special effects. I wanted to construct a dirt cone in the backyard that was hollow inside and large enough to use as a clubhouse. I was a bit sketchy on the actual structural details, but I figured I’d start by digging a nice big pit, then add some sort of frame and cover it over with the dirt I’d removed previously. So I got an old piece of garden hose and formed it into a circle about 15 feet (5m) in diameter on the lawn to mark the perimeter of the volcano. The actual digging turned out to be a lot harder than I’d imagined—so hard, in fact, that after shoveling about two scoops of dirt I decided I’d better take a break. Weeks later, when I still hadn’t resumed my project, my mother told me to get that hose out of the middle of the yard, and while I was at it, mow the lawn. Reluctantly, I put the hose away, only to find it had left an unsightly yellow ring on the grass. It looked as though a flying saucer had landed, and the ring didn’t fade until the following spring.

I was embarrassed at both my inability to build my volcano and the condition of our lawn. It never occurred to me that with a bit more effort, I could have turned my blunder into a huge piece of art—say, a smiley face or a basketball. Just as well; I think my parents would have frowned on that. But nowadays, grass art—based on the very same principle I unwittingly discovered—has reached an exceptional level of sophistication, as artists create giant, stunningly detailed photographs on living grass. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Lightsabres

The myth and technology of the Jedi weapon

Like most people, I thoroughly enjoyed the three original Star Wars films, and like most people, I found the prequel installments rather disappointing. The special effects and visual quality were dramatically improved, but the stories left much to be desired, the acting was mediocre, and the writing had none of the intensity or sparkle of the originals. After “Episode I: The Phantom Menace” appeared, I was discussing it with my friend Johanna. We spent a lot of time complaining about Jar Jar Binks, the interminable pod race sequence, and the complete absence of memorable dialogue. But as we talked, I realized that despite my criticism, there was still something about the film that inspired me. So I said, “Even considering all these problems, be honest. When you left the theater, didn’t you want to be a Jedi knight?” Johanna smiled sheepishly and said, “Well, yeah, of course!” Me too.

That’s not to say I’d record my religion as “Jedi” on a census form—Star Wars is, after all, just a story. Still, Jedi knights are very cool, in the way comic-book superheroes are. They have mysterious telepathic and telekinetic powers; they are expert fighters; they nearly always manage to save the day. But the best thing about Jedi knights is that they carry what they consider a simple, low-tech weapon: a lightsabre. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Light Pollution

Urban assault on the night sky

I used to go for a walk every night. It was a pleasant habit—exercise, fresh air, quiet time alone to think. I made a point, whenever possible, of walking in an area away from the city lights, where the sky was dark enough that I could get a good look at the stars. I knew how to pick out some of the constellations, though I could never quite understand how anyone could see a goat or an archer in the patterns of stars. Seeing shapes in clouds is one thing, but mentally connecting the dots to form a complex picture didn’t really work for me. That’s not to say I didn’t see anything in the stars, though. As I looked at a particular star, I would think about the possibility of life in outer space, the chance that a planet circling that star may be home to people like me—or unfathomably different beings. I’d think about how Earth is just another one of those countless planets and the sun just another one of those countless stars. And picking my favorite star of the moment, I’d say to myself, “Someday I’ll find a way to go there.”

Looking at the stars and thinking about them in this way always had a very calming effect on me. I felt as though it gave me a sense of proportion, that it put my own crises and ambitions in perspective. It didn’t make me feel insignificantly small; instead, it made me feel somehow privileged to be able to see and understand what may be out there, and to realize I’m a part of something so big. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Red Tide

A beautiful and/or deadly aquatic phenomenon

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From the archives…

Pastis

The noble successor to absinthe

It’s all Peter Mayle’s fault. Before I fell under his nefarious influence, I had very simple tastes. Food was food; a burger and fries eaten on the run was a perfectly satisfactory dining experience. But then I read A Year in Provence and its sequels, books that tell colorful tales about ordinary life in the southern French countryside. To hear Mayle describe life in Provence, every waking hour is concerned with acquiring, preparing, or eating food. His descriptions of wonderfully rich food and drink, enjoyed course after course in meals that stretch for hours, are sensual to the point of being called erotic. You can just taste the foie gras, the truffles, the escargots as you read. For impressionable minds like mine, there was only one possible outcome. I became a French food snob. And along my path to culinary enlightenment, I felt it necessary to sample—indeed, become somewhat expert on—a variety of French beverages. One drink that receives quite prominent treatment in Mayle’s books is pastis, which is as good a place to start as any.

Pastis is a distilled spirit made from a blend of herbs. The flavor is predominantly that of anise, thus putting it in the same general class as sambuca and ouzo. It is commonly consumed as an aperitif—sort of a liquid, alcoholic appetizer—and in France, where it’s most popular, the custom is to dilute it at the table with about five parts of cold water. The ritual of adding the water, which causes the translucent yellowish liquid to turn cloudy, is part of the fun of drinking pastis. But the most interesting thing about pastis is its history. That it should exist at all is a bit of an accident. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Peanut Milk

The magic peanut elixir

Every child who grows up in the United States hears the story of George Washington Carver, a former slave who became a botanist and agriculturalist. Carver is best known for devising over 300 uses for peanuts—from ink to glue to soap, not to mention a great many recipes for peanut-based foods. Although I’ve often wondered why I don’t see peanut paint or peanut insecticide at my local hardware store, I have the utmost respect for Carver’s discoveries and for the versatility of this humble legume.

Peanuts have got to be one of my top ten favorite foods. I love peanuts in or on chocolate, ice cream, Pad Thai, satays, soups, sauces, and just about everywhere else. They’re especially good on airplanes (which otherwise tend to have a rather metallic taste). So when I heard about a peanut-based beverage that also reputedly had fantastic health benefits, I couldn’t wait to try it. The product in question is the suspiciously named Signs and Wonders brand peanut milk, developed right here in San Francisco. Although you can buy it from a number of small stores, the best place to get it is the KK Cafe near the corner of Haight and Divisadero Streets, where it was invented. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Grolla

Coffee, grappa, and friendship

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From the archives…

Tiki

The imaginary Polynesian culture

One day last summer I walked into one of my favorite mom-and-pop variety shops in San Francisco and saw a big display of everything Tiki—a Tiki bar, Tiki glasses, Tiki masks, Tiki statues, Tiki books. My initial reaction was, “Ah, another cheesy American fad is reborn,” followed quickly by, “Cool! I need to own this stuff.” What can I say? I’m a sucker for faux culture, especially exotic faux culture—particularly when it involves interesting drinks. But I soon realized that I had only ever heard the word “Tiki” used as an adjective. I didn’t know what a Tiki actually was. I could identify Tiki-themed merchandise easily enough, but I wasn’t quite clear what culture it was supposed to represent. So I decided to do some research.

My first step, of course, was to watch the film “Pirates of the Caribbean.” Other than being set in the wrong ocean, it was a good way to get those Tiki juices flowing. After all, it does involve islands and rum. But it made me hearken back to the attraction of the same name that I’ve visited at both Walt Disney World and Disneyland. This, in turn, reminded me of yet another notorious Disney attraction which is also populated by those ubiquitous Audio-Animatronic characters—namely, the Enchanted Tiki Room. Ah, now we’re getting somewhere. So my next stop was the closest approximation of the Enchanted Tiki Room I could find in San Francisco: a restaurant called the Tonga Room. And what luck: just in time for happy hour and an all-you-can-eat buffet. At last I was getting somewhere. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Icewine

How a little frost can do wonders for wine

I may not be the most agriculturally sophisticated person in the world, but I always felt pretty confident in my basic belief that frost was a Bad Thing when it came to growing produce. If whatever crop you’re growing hasn’t been harvested by the time temperatures dip below freezing, serious damage can be done, right? Common sense, however, frequently turns out to be wrong. At least for grapes, freezing is eagerly anticipated by vintners in certain parts of the world. It’s a key factor in the production of an expensive variety of dessert wine known as icewine.

Grapes are most comfortably grown in a Mediterranean climate—areas with hot, dry summers and mild, wet winters, such as France, Italy, Spain, Australia, and parts of California. But plenty of excellent wines also come from Germany, Austria, and the southeastern and southwestern corners of Canada, all places where freezing temperatures in winter are quite normal. And these are exactly the regions where icewine is produced. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Absinthe

The tale of the Green Fairy

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

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

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From the archives…

Traveler's Palms

Compass, canteen, and canopy in one

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From the archives…

The Experience of Things

An editorial aside

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From the archives…

Robots that Smell

Artificial noses and beyond

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

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

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From the archives…

Synesthesia

Making sense of shared senses

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From the archives…

The Right-to-Quiet Movement

Shouting down excess noise

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From the archives…

Phenomenology

The science of experience

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

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

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From the archives…

The Tactile Dome

Getting the feel of the Exploratorium

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

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

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From the archives…

Silent Retreats

A different way of listening

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

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

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From the archives…

Athabasca Sand Dunes

Saskatchewan’s shifting sands

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

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From the archives…

Oil Sands

Alberta’s tarry treasure

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From the archives…

Saturna Island

Less is more (interesting)

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

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

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