From the archives…

The Theremin

Electronic music’s original user interface

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From the archives…

The Truth About Bananas

Fingering the world’s most popular tropical fruit

When I was in college, I had a professor who was known for being a bit on the odd side. Although he was smart, friendly, and much loved by the students, he had some strange and inexplicable habits. For one thing, he had a very peculiar way of speaking, including about a dozen idiosyncratic phrases that he repeated over and over. A friend and I, when we got bored, used to sit in the back of the classroom and keep a tally of how many times he used each of these phrases. The professor always kept a pen clipped to his collar, even if he was wearing a shirt with a pocket (a practice that amused me so much I adopted it myself—and keep it up to this day). And he encouraged us, on multiple-choice exams, to write in our own answers in the margin if we didn’t like any of his.

Every now and then, this professor came to class with the sticker from a banana on his shirt. The brand varied, but the position did not: it was stuck right above the spot where his pen would be, if he had kept it in his pocket the way normal people do. We assumed it was just another one of his silly habits, but one day, a student actually asked him—during class—what was with the stickers. He replied, solemnly, “Oh. Yeah. Well, whenever I have a banana for breakfast that has a sticker on it, I put the sticker on my shirt to remind me of the suffering of the banana pickers in Latin America, who sometimes earn just 50¢ for a 12-hour day of work in grueling conditions. I wear it to show my solidarity with them, as a silent protest for better treatment.” From that day on, we saw the professor in a completely new light—and we started thinking about bananas differently too. As I was later to discover, almost nothing about bananas is as it seems. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The French Meal-Payment Ritual

Why you should always carry matches to a restaurant

My official job description only requires me to deliver articles about “things,” which I have intentionally defined as broadly as possible. So if, say, the way a waitress treats me seems interesting, that should be fair game. Thus I present for your consideration an interesting thing that happened at lunch one day last year while on vacation in France.

Around noon on this day, Morgen and I walked into a café near the Pompidou Center in Paris. We were shown to a table and given menus; a few minutes later, our waitress returned to take our order. We waited a while longer and our food came; it was delicious, just as we’d expected. This pattern of enter-select-order-eat is, with few and minor variations, common all over the world, and I have repeated this ritual an untold number of times in a variety of languages. But in France, as any travel book will tell you, the expectation is that you will want to savor your meal, perhaps have dessert and a relaxing cup of coffee, and then remain at your table for a further hour or two enjoying the company of whomever you’re with. There is no notion whatsoever of rushing patrons out to make space available for the next customer; in France, once you’ve claimed a table, it’s yours for as long as you care to stay—even if you consumed the last of your meal hours ago. This attitude, I must say, strikes me as wonderfully civilized, and I can think of two or three North American countries that would do well to adopt the same custom. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Quantifying Despair and Depression

Keep swimming

Sometimes I make jokes about the exact extent to which some event has affected my mental state. For example, my wife will walk into my office with a plate of freshly baked cookies, and I’ll say, “Wow, I’m now 7% happier!” Of course, the reason it works as a joke is that happiness (or the lack thereof) is not only subjective, it’s multifaceted—I may be ecstatic about the cookies, yet still quite unhappy about my taxes.

Doctor, It Feels Like I’m Treading Water
All joking aside, I wondered whether there might be some way of measuring despair. We can certainly tell if it exists or not, and whether it feels severe. But surely psychiatrists have some sort of semi-objective scale of measurement, I figured. I couldn’t imagine one doctor saying to another, “My 10 a.m. is a Venti, but with some Prozac I’m sure we can get him down to a Tall.” So I began searching for references of scales used to measure despair or depression. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Equation of Time

When what you mean is not apparent

When someone asks me how I’m doing, I habitually answer, “Fine,” because that’s what social convention dictates—whether or not I really am fine. Most people probably don’t want to hear the detailed truth, and would be sorry they asked if I told them. Similarly, when people ask what I do for a living, more often than not they’re looking for a quick and easy way to categorize me, rather than a litany of the sundry and somewhat unconventional means by which I earn a living. So I tend to oblige with a short answer that requires no further discussion.

One day, however, I was at a party, and being in an uncharacteristically charitable mood, I decided to tell people what my occupation really is. One guy I spoke to—let’s call him “Bob” (for that is his name)—seemed particularly intrigued by the notion of Interesting Thing of the Day. He scribbled down the URL and promised me he’d send me some suggestions for topics to write about. A few days later, Bob sent me a link to a news article that led off with the following tantalizing claim: “Now we may know why the South lost the Civil War: Confederate time was about a half-hour slower than Yankee time.” I had heard of famous historical blunders based on confusion over differing calendars, but not over differing clocks. How cool. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Scruples and Stones

A pebble for your thoughts

You may think of yourself as a scrupulous person—you may have even said indignantly when accused of some fault, “I have scruples!” But exactly how many scruples do you have? If you’ve recently finished a meal or taken a stroll down a gravel-covered path, chances are you have more scruples now than you did an hour ago.

The calculation is quite easy to make: there are 4,900 scruples in a stone, though a single stone can also be a scruple. You may be thinking this is like saying, “4,900 angels can dance on the head of a pin, though a single pin can also be an angel.” But that’s just plain silly. I don’t know a single angel who can dance on the head of a pin, and besides, I must imagine that angels have much better things to do with their time. On the other hand, both stones and scruples are quite concrete, everyday things that sometimes have extended or metaphorical meanings, and in the case of this pair of terms, those meanings intersect in interesting ways. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Decimal Time

Solutions for people who need 100 hours in a day

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From the archives…

Furlongs Per Fortnight

Mix-and-match units

The official Interesting Thing of the Day style guide stipulates that within reason, all measurements expressed in American or British units (pounds, gallons, miles, etc.) should also be given in S.I. (metric) units. We do this partly because many of our readers are located in other parts of the world, and partly because metric units just make so much more sense. And yet, all units of measurement are ultimately arbitrary, and however convenient calculations may be with systems based on the number 10, there are always other ways of looking at things.

Faster than a Speeding Snail
When I was in high school, for example, I heard someone use the expression “furlongs per fortnight,” an odd juxtaposition of measurements that struck me as very funny. I thought it would be interesting to figure out how to express the speed of light in furlongs per fortnight. It turned out to be a huge number, over 1.8 trillion (1,802,617,500,000, to be exact). A furlong is of course defined as 40 rods, a rod being an equally obscure unit of length measuring 16.5 feet. Thus you can also express a furlong as 220 yards, 660 feet, 201.2 meters, or 1/8 of a mile. (The only people who normally work with furlongs are those who design race tracks for horses—clearly, an animal whose height is measured in hands needs a special term to describe how far it runs.) A fortnight is 14 days (or nights, as the case may be). So something moving at the speed of one furlong per fortnight (f/f) would be moving very slowly indeed. Interestingly enough, though, 1 f/f is almost exactly equal to 1 centimeter per minute; therefore, furlongs per fortnight would be a good unit of measurement for a snail’s pace, which ranges from a bit less than 1 f/f to about 30.5 f/f. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Body-Based Units of Measurement

Size matters in more ways than one

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From the archives…

Measuring the Speed of Light

Fun with mirrors and math

Last spring when I was in Paris, I marveled at all the technological wonders displayed in the Musée des Arts et Métiers. What impressed me the most was some of the very old laboratory apparatus that enabled scientists of centuries past to figure out some very difficult puzzles without the benefit of modern gadgets such as lasers and high-speed digital computers. In particular, I spent a long time studying the equipment Jean Bernard Léon Foucault used to measure the speed of light in the mid-1800s.

Foucault worked in a variety of scientific fields, with his greatest claim to fame being a simple mechanical method for proving the rotation of the Earth—what came to be known as Foucault’s Pendulum. I was even more astounded, though, to see how he solved the extremely vexing problem of making an accurate measurement of the speed of light without so much as an electric motor or a quartz crystal. The display of his lab bench in the museum had not only a printed description but even an animated video presentation. Unfortunately, my French wasn’t good enough for me to comprehend exactly how it worked; I could only tell that it had something to do with a rotating mirror, measuring angles, and (most puzzling of all) a tuning fork. Later, reading about the equipment in English, I finally understood, and I’ll describe his method in a moment. But first, a bit of history. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Arcosanti

Building a rural city

While on a business trip in Scottsdale, Arizona in the early 1990s, I took a walk down the road from the hotel one afternoon and ran into a peculiar-looking place called Cosanti. This compound, an official Arizona Historical Site, is a collection of oddly shaped concrete structures, including large domes and apses made from earthen molds. The first thing a visitor notices is the multitude of handmade bronze and ceramic windbells all over the property. These are made in the foundry and workshops on the site and available for sale in the gift shop. But Cosanti is much more than a new-agey craft center. It’s the residence and studio of Italian architect and artist Paolo Soleri. As the brochures on the counter explained, Cosanti is, among other things, a prototype for a much larger and grander construction project called Arcosanti.

City in the Wilderness
Located about 70 miles (110 km) north of Phoenix, Arcosanti is called an “urban laboratory.” What Soleri has been testing in this laboratory for well over 30 years is a concept he calls arcology, a blending of architecture and ecology. His vision is to build a 25-acre city where 5,000 people can one day live, work, and play—comfortably, sustainably, and in harmony with nature. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Missile Silo Homes

Hole is where the heart is

As much as I enjoy urban life, there are times when it gets to me. The noise, traffic, crime, and cost of living occasionally make me long for a quiet, affordable home out in the middle of nowhere. At times like these, I like to browse the real estate listings on eBay. I don’t have the means to purchase a rural getaway, but just looking at the ads and daydreaming about them for an hour or two usually puts me in a better mood. I imagine how nice it would be to live on an island somewhere. Or perhaps on a small ranch in New Mexico. Or in a waterfront cottage in Oregon. Maybe even that little cabin in the mountains of central Costa Rica. Or wait—what’s this?—an abandoned underground missile base? Incredible but true. Looks a bit unusual, sure, but think of those high ceilings, the nicely insulated walls, the privacy. And for the highest bidder, it can become home.

I’m not even talking about just one particular abandoned missile base. That would be a curiosity, but little more. In fact, however, there are dozens of missile silos that have been—or soon will be—renovated for use as private homes, schools, businesses, and other non-military applications. At any given time, astute shoppers can find several such properties on the market in various parts of the United States. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Hearst Estate at San Simeon

Xanadu in California

For reasons that have never been entirely clear to me, I went through much of my life completely oblivious of certain very important icons of American culture. For example, if you were to ask 100 Americans at random to name the best movie of all time, it’s a safe bet that a sizable percentage would say, “Citizen Kane,” Orson Welles’s 1941 masterpiece. Even those who don’t consider it a cinematic legend have most likely seen it, if for no other reason than curiosity at its fame. But I can’t recall even hearing of the film until about six or seven years ago. Morgen and I were watching some old “Kids in the Hall” videos, and one very funny sketch was based on the assumption that everyone knows about Citizen Kane. Feeling that my cultural education was incomplete, I finally saw the film. I enjoyed it but utterly missed the point, having also somehow failed to accumulate any knowledge of William Hearst, on whose life the story was not-so-subtly based.

Hearst, like the fictional Charles Foster Kane, was a newspaper magnate who aspired to, but never quite got, political power. Where Kane spent his fortune on a vast estate in Florida he called Xanadu, Hearst built his dream house in San Simeon, California—about 200 miles (322km) south of San Francisco. Hearst had inherited a 250,000-acre (101,172-hectare) ranch on a hill overlooking the ocean, and he used to take his family camping there. Eventually he tired of “roughing it” in a small city of tents and in 1919 hired architect Julia Morgan to design less austere vacation housing. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Herrenchiemsee Castle

King Ludwig II’s island retreat

King Ludwig II of Bavaria is one of the most colorful characters in German history. Widely regarded as insane, he was certainly a troubled individual and not well suited to the demands of a monarch’s life. Although as a ruler he was neither effective nor well-liked, he is remembered fondly today primarily because of his contributions to the future economy of Germany: his castles, which attract huge numbers of tourists each year. Of the three castles Ludwig had built, Neuschwanstein was the most famous, with its fairy-tale pseudo-medieval design. But even more ambitious was Herrenchiemsee Castle.

Sup-Versailles It
At the foot of the Bavarian Alps lies the Chiemsee, a large lake with a number of islands. To reach the largest island, Herreninsel, you take a ferry from the shore. Hidden from view by trees until you reach the island is what appears to be an exact replica of Versailles. And in fact, that was just what Ludwig was after. He didn’t like the thought of being outdone, and fancied himself as one of the great kings of Europe. So he studied Versailles carefully in order to make his version as close as possible to the original. Herrenchiemsee lacks the two side wings of Versailles, has a somewhat different interior layout, and is located in a much more secluded setting. But the overall design of the architecture—and even the choice of artwork, fabrics, and décor inside—reflects the sensibilities of French royalty. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Winchester Mystery House

The building project of a lifetime

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

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

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From the archives…

Neuschwanstein Castle

King Ludwig II’s tribute to Wagner

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

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

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From the archives…

One-Log House

Northern California’s famous redwood attraction

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

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

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From the archives…

Fasting

There’s more to not eating than you think

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

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

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From the archives…

The Kepler Mission

Searching for other habitable planets

Author’s Update: The Kepler Mission finally launched on March 6, 2009, and has already found several planets. For current updates on its status, check the mission’s Official Web Site.

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been a fan of Star Trek in its various incarnations. I have no trouble suspending my disbelief in the seemingly incredible technology of the future, and I can even accept that somehow, mysteriously, humanoid beings all over the galaxy speak English. But there are some recurring Trek themes that boggle the mind because they seemingly defy the laws of statistics. For example, we viewers are expected to believe that upon encountering any alien race, there is a 35% probability that some hot alien chick will fall in love with the captain of the Enterprise within an hour. Well…I don’t know that the probability is 35%, but it’s certainly a few orders of magnitude higher than what common sense tells me. Likewise, when our heroes encounter a new planet, almost without exception they observe with feigned surprise that it’s a “Class M” planet—Trek shorthand for “able to sustain human life.” [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Benedictine Oblates

Becoming a modern monk

Guest Article by Sheri Hostetler

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

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

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From the archives…

The Pluto Controversy

Defining and counting planets

Everything I needed to know about astronomy I learned from folk music. Well, not quite…but isn’t that how people normally keep their fingers on the pulse of scientific progress? Several years ago I went to hear Christine Lavin in concert. This New York-based folk singer is perhaps best known as the composer of “Sensitive New Age Guys,” but she’s been recording funny and clever songs for over 20 years and is a delightfully entertaining performer. At this concert, she asked if there were any mathematicians in the audience. A few people raised their hands. Then she asked those with their hands up if by any chance one of them happened to be an astromathematician. One woman said that was indeed her profession. Christine was thrilled, because she had a song about an astromathematician and wanted to make sure someone in the audience could truly appreciate it. The song was called “Planet X,” and it recounted in great detail the story of Pluto—its discovery, naming, and the ongoing controversy over whether or not it should be considered a planet. It was brilliant, and also educational: I learned more about Pluto from that one song than I’d ever known before.

What most people know about Pluto is that it’s a tiny, cold planet on the outer edge of our solar system that shares its name with a Disney character and the Roman god of the underworld. Less well-known is the strange history of its discovery and its central role in a controversy over the very definition of a planet, the outcome of which could mean that there are not nine, but as few as eight or as many as dozens of planets orbiting the Sun. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

T'ai Chi Ch'uan

The meditative martial art

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

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

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From the archives…

Mercury Retrograde

The all-purpose astrological excuse

Among the many things that interest me are some that have—how can I put this delicately?—dubious claims to authenticity. Fortunately, this is not “Interesting True Fact of the Day,” and I don’t think anyone would dispute that the word “thing” could be applied fairly to unicorns, flying saucers, or pots of gold at the end of the rainbow. Today’s topic, the astrological interpretation of a perfectly commonplace phenomenon called Mercury retrograde, is perhaps in the same category. But the story of Mercury retrograde’s alleged effect is quite interesting—so much so that I’m tempted to believe in it, common sense notwithstanding.

The word retrograde simply means “moving backward” or “retreating.” In its astronomical usage, a planet is said to be retrograde when, from the viewpoint of Earth, it stops and then moves backward in its orbit. The effect has been likened to driving down the road watching a moving car beside you—if it slows down or your car speeds up, the other car appears to be moving backward. A change in speed has nothing to do with a planet going retrograde. The illusion of backward motion occurs because the angle of a planet’s orbit relative to Earth’s orbit changes at certain points in their respective cycles. Three or four times a year, for a period of 20 to 28 days each time, Mercury exhibits this effect. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Charles Atlas Dynamic-Tension Fitness Course

Isometric blast from the past

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

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

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From the archives…

Public Enrichment Project

Fun and common sense for a better world

When I began working on Interesting Thing of the Day, it was not with the idea that it would make tons of money. I was, and still am, optimistic that eventually the revenue generated by this project will be enough to make it worth the time spent working on it. But when you get right down to it, I do this because I feel it needs to be done. I like to learn, teach, and have fun, and Interesting Thing of the Day accomplishes those things for me. So when I heard about a very unusual nonprofit organization that appears to have the very same goals, I felt an immediate sense of kinship. The organization is called Public Enrichment Project (or PEP for short).

A friend of mine handed me a very sober-looking two-page newsletter from the organization that looked exactly like the newsletters from every other small nonprofit. It didn’t try to be cute or flashy, it simply recounted the group’s recent activities. But the activities were unlike anything I’d ever heard of—weird, inventive, and compellingly sane. The organization’s Web site says, “PEP’s mission is to assist individuals with projects that are extraordinarily creative, publicly enriching and also run the risk of going unnoticed.” That’s it? What’s the catch? Where’s the ulterior motive, the grand idea they can pitch to potential donors, the touching story of a need they’re trying to meet? There isn’t one. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Rise of the Bagel

The hole truth

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

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

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From the archives…

The Story of Phineas Gage

Brain damage and personality

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

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

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Monolithic Concrete Domes

Creating buildings out of thin air

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From the archives…

Twin Peaks

Television’s most successful coffee ad

Author’s Note: This article was updated in February 2007 with new information about DVD availability. However, it has now become outdated once again, as the entire series (including the original pilot) was finally released as a boxed DVD set, with Region 1 encoding, in the fall of 2007. I’ll rewrite the relevant parts of the article at some point in the future.

If I were to tell you that I was a Monty Python fan, or that I enjoyed watching Star Trek or Iron Chef, you would probably not, by that fact alone, develop much of an opinion about me. You may decide that I have good taste or poor taste; you may feel that my opinions about British comedy, science fiction, or Japanese cooking are similar or dissimilar to your own. You may wonder, fleetingly, whether I associate myself with the legions of rabid fans who have given such shows their cult status. But if I told you that I am a Twin Peaks fan, you may jump to the conclusion that I am hopelessly off my rocker—unless of course you, too, are a Twin Peaks fan. The fans, like the show, tend to be what most people euphemistically call “different.” [Article Continues…]

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