From the archives…

Modern Mummies

Resurrecting the art of arrested decay

We have all heard of people who had their bodies cryogenically preserved after death in the hope that some day, medical science will be able to bring them back to life and cure whatever illness caused their demise. That hope may be overly optimistic, but I can at least respect the logic behind the decision. Unlikely though it may be, I can’t say categorically that such a restoration is beyond the reach of some future science. With that single exception, however, I have never understood the ages-old practice of keeping dead bodies from decaying naturally. It’s not that I’m some soulless pragmatist, but I believe that death is the point at which a body becomes superfluous to its erstwhile owner—keeping it intact thereafter seems superstitious and creepy. Of course, that’s just my opinion. Some of my best friends are superstitious and creepy, and I don’t hold it against them.

Grave Concerns
Each culture has somewhat different beliefs about what should happen to a corpse. In North America, the majority of the deceased are embalmed so that they’ll look lifelike for a funeral several days later; they are then buried in airtight caskets inside concrete vaults or grave liners. Some people may derive comfort from the notion that a departed loved one is still somehow whole, but in ancient Egypt, much more was at stake than the feelings of the bereaved. During the centuries when the art of mummification was practiced, it was based on a deeply held belief that only if the tissues of one’s body were kept intact after death would the soul survive throughout eternity. [Article Continues…]

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Wednesday, September 29, 2004

The Foods of Sukkot

Stuffing and symbolism

My friend Mark is a rabbi, and although I’m not Jewish, we share similar opinions on many topics, both religious and secular. About this time last year, Mark sent me an email pointing out that in the celebration of Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles (which begins this evening), several stuffed foods are part of the standard menu. Nearly every cuisine around the world contains stuffed foods of one kind or another. In Italy, there’s gnocchi and ravioli; in China, stuffed wontons; in Greece, stuffed grape leaves; and in America, jelly doughnuts…just for example. So I had been intending to write something about this culinary phenomenon anyway, and I thought it was a remarkable coincidence that stuffed foods had special symbolic significance during a week when the site’s theme involved things that are stuffed. In honor of the occasion, I decided to repeat the theme and today’s topic this year.

Take-Out Only
Sukkot (also spelled Sukkoth or Succoth) is a Jewish harvest festival that lasts seven or eight days each fall. The translation “Feast of Tabernacles” or “Feast of Booths” refers to the sukkot, portable booths or huts the ancient Israelites lived in while wandering in the desert. The biblical reference (or, rather, one of several) states: [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Deyrolle

Taxidermy heaven in Paris

When we were in Paris last year, a large number of transit and public utility workers were on strike. I am reliably informed that strikes of this kind are extremely common in France; a week when no one is on strike would be considered strange. In any case, a lot of people weren’t showing up for work, either because the subways weren’t running or because they were participating in demonstrations on the streets. As a result, museums and other attractions were forced to scale back their hours of operation. After leaving the Musée d’Orsay early, we had some time to kill on the left bank, and we took the opportunity to look up a nearby shop Morgen had read about.

In Paris to the Moon, Adam Gopnik describes the five years he spent living as an expatriate in Paris along with his wife and young son. One of their favorite places to go on rainy days was a strange and fascinating shop called Deyrolle on the Rue du Bac. Deyrolle could be described as a taxidermy shop, but that doesn’t begin to do it justice, and besides, taxidermy shops are not exactly a dime a dozen—especially in Paris. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Mega Dog

Cheap eats in Las Vegas

Author’s Note: On November 17, 2005—a little more than a year after this article was published—the Westward Ho Hotel and Casino closed permanently after more than 40 years in operation. Although, sadly, you can no longer go there to get a Mega Dog or a 99¢ margarita, we’ll leave this article here for its historical value.

Before I visited Las Vegas for the first time, a number of people warned me that I’d hate it. To be sure, there are any number of things about the city that one may find off-putting, and it can be quite an expensive place to visit—even if you don’t count money lost by gambling. But my first impression of Las Vegas was that it was like a giant amusement park. Everything was built on an absurdly large scale, but the excesses almost seemed to make fun of themselves. I found it absolutely delightful to go from one casino to the next, watching how much effort each establishment put into looking gaudier and more over-the-top than the next. Whether it’s better blackjack odds, looser slot machines, a faster roller coaster, or a flashier pirate show, every business has some gimmick to convince the tourists to spend their money there. And of course, like an amusement park, everything in Las Vegas is designed carefully to make you feel that the money you’re spending is well worth it; you’re experiencing one-of-a-kind attractions. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Demosthenes' Stones

Improving your diction, Athenian style

It’s a good thing I had never heard of Demosthenes when I was a child. I would have gotten in trouble. My mom would have said, “Don’t talk with your mouth full.” And I would have replied, “Don’t you want me to be a famous orator like Demosthenes? I’m training!” And then I would have been sent to my room without any more of whatever my mouth was full of. Kids, this is why grownups are always saying things like, “You’re too young to understand. Just take my word for it.” It’s for your own good. And if you get in trouble for talking with your mouth full, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Repeat After Me
Even as an adult, I get in trouble over Demosthenes. A while back, Morgen and I were watching “My Fair Lady” on TV. For those unfamiliar with the story, a linguistics professor in London named Henry Higgins makes a wager with a friend that he can rid a working-class girl, Eliza Doolittle, of her Cockney accent and teach her to speak like a proper lady. In one of his many drills, he insists that Eliza fill her mouth with marbles and then read a series of phrases. So of course I said, “Oh, just like Demosthenes.” Morgen gave me one of her patented looks that means “How do you expect me to know these obscure facts if I don’t read about them on Interesting Thing of the Day?” I was tempted to respond with a look that meant “Oh come on, everybody knows about Demosthenes,” but I opted instead for the path of marital concord. After all, one shouldn’t look a gift topic in the mouth. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The S Curve

What is wrong with success?

Guest Article by Rajagopal Sukumar

While the saying “success begets success” has almost become a cliché, there is no dearth of stories covering inexplicable failures of extremely successful people and corporations. Reading some of these stories and the books on this topic led me to the question: What if there is something fundamental that we are missing about success that leads to all these spectacular failures?

S Curve
My research brought me to the fascinating concept of the S Curve. Apparently, when you plot expertise with respect to time, it traces an S-shaped curve.

As depicted in the accompanying diagram, when we begin learning a skill, we are a bit slow initially at the tail of the S curve. As time progresses, learning proceeds at a dramatically increased speed, helping us to climb the steep slope of the S curve very quickly. At the top of the slope, we are deemed experts in that particular skill. From then on, even if we put a lot of effort into improving ourselves in that area, the resultant learning will not be proportional. The top end of the S curve is also called the slope of diminishing returns. At the top of the S curve, many people succumb to the effects of hubris, which gives them a false sense of security because the world believes and acknowledges that they are the experts in that field. Unfortunately, the world keeps moving and some other new skill becomes important, which renders this expert obsolete. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Perpetual Motion Machines

The endless quest for free energy

I distinctly remember learning the laws of thermodynamics in a science class—it must have been around eighth grade. After explaining these laws, the teacher added, “…and that is why perpetual motion machines are impossible.” So this fact has been firmly implanted in my brain for a very long time.

What I did not realize back then is that over the centuries, hundreds—if not thousands—of hopeful inventors have dedicated their lives to disproving these laws by building machines they believed would run indefinitely with no input of energy. Patent offices around the world became so inundated with designs for alleged perpetual motion machines that they now routinely dismiss such submissions without so much as a glance. But although every such design ever attempted has failed, the pace of research to find that subtle trick that results in perpetual motion has, if anything, accelerated. While doing some research on another topic, I stumbled upon a Web site listing an incredible number of current or recent projects. And sadly, many of these are not merely futile but fraudulent, as their developers convince investors to fork over large sums of money to pay for something that is just not possible. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Propeller Beanies

The story of the geek’s icon

When I write technical books and articles, I generally assume my audience is composed of ordinary people, not programmers or computer experts. I try to provide enough context and detail so that any reasonably intelligent person can get the gist of what I’m saying, even without prior experience in the topic I’m discussing. But in one of my ebooks, I described a certain procedure that, because it was somewhat complex, should only be attempted by those with a fair amount of computer know-how. The way I put it was this: “Unlike everything else in this book, this rather involved (and entirely optional) technique does require you to wear a propeller beanie…”

A few months later, I got an email from the man who was translating the book into German. His very reasonable question: “What is a propeller beanie?”

I found it surprisingly difficult to answer the question. I can describe what a propeller beanie looks like, but if the translator put the German equivalent for “child’s skullcap with a decorative plastic propeller” in the book, that would not be meaningful to the readers—they’d wonder, “Why must I wear a silly hat to be able to do such-and-such with my computer?” After explaining, as best I could, the cultural significance of the propeller beanie in America, I told the translator that it would be best just to say, “This technique requires you to be technically proficient.” I have no idea if there is any shorthand symbol in German that represents the same bundle of ideas that the propeller beanie does in English. But this exchange, besides bringing back memories of graduate linguistics courses in the problems of translation, made me wonder where the propeller beanie actually came from, and how it came to mean what it does today. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Hurdy-Gurdy

Violin, bagpipes, and kazoo combined

Guest Article by Jackie Chappell

In 1996, I bought an album I knew next to nothing about, by an artist I had never heard of before, on the strength of the album being issued on Peter Gabriel’s excellent Real World record label. The album was “Big City Secrets” by Joseph Arthur, and from the very first track I knew that I had made a good purchase. However, I really sat up and listened when I got to track 3, “Mikel K.” In the background of the song there was a really odd-sounding instrument. It sounded a bit like a violin (or a folk-style fiddle) played with a never-ending bow, and had a bagpipe-like drone note in the background. As if that wasn’t enough sonic complexity for one instrument, there was also a rhythmic buzzing sound, slightly reminiscent of a kazoo. What in the world was it? A quick check of the liner notes revealed only one instrument that I hadn’t heard of before—a hurdy-gurdy.

Don’t They Usually Come with a Monkey?
The first image that popped into my head was of a kind of barrel organ, where a handle is turned to drive bellows which force air through organ pipes, and which is also usually accompanied by some kind of simian assistant. I was so fascinated by the sound that I did some research, and found that my misconception was a common one. The hurdy-gurdy (or vielle à roue, as it is known in France) is played by turning a handle, but the resemblance to a barrel organ ends there. The body of the instrument can be box-shaped or with a rounded back like a lute, and many examples are beautifully decorated with inlaid wood. The handle turns a wheel covered in rosin, which vibrates the strings; the hurdy-gurdy functions like a violin with an endless bow, so that there is no pause in the sound at the end of a bow stroke. Instead of sounding notes using the fingers, the musician presses sliding, un-sprung keys which make contact with the strings and shorten them to make a sound of the required pitch. The drone comes from one or more strings which do not get pressed by the keys, and therefore sound the same notes continuously. The final part of the puzzle is the moveable bridge, or chien (French for dog), which supports one of the drone strings and can be manipulated by a skilled player so that it vibrates against the body of the hurdy-gurdy during playing, making a rhythmic buzzing noise. The whole ensemble has a driving, continuous sound, with its own percussion produced by the chien; it is impossible not to tap your feet along with the music. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Story of Doughnuts

The truth, the hole truth…

In the mid-1990s, I visited Las Vegas for the first time. I was there for an internet conference, and a friend of mine who had been there many times took it upon himself to show me all the standard tourist sites and make sure I got the complete Las Vegas experience. We walked down the Strip, taking in the obligatory pirate show, erupting volcano, and other spectacles. But there was one sight I had never heard of that was later to become a regular pilgrimage for me: the Krispy Kreme Doughnuts shop in the Excalibur hotel.

At that time, Krispy Kreme hadn’t expanded to become the phenomenon it is today. The only commercial doughnut shop chain I had ever known was Dunkin’ Donuts. But Krispy Kreme was definitely something special. For one thing, visitors could watch the doughnuts being made; a window ran along the side of the shop where the line formed. I was fascinated by the mechanism that flipped the doughnuts over in the oil when they were half-cooked, and watched in awe as they passed through a curtain of glaze. Although doughnuts are such a simple food, I felt I was watching something magical. Then I tasted one, and was even more impressed. I had never known what a fresh, hot doughnut was like—the difference from what I had experienced before is like that of fresh bread hot from the oven compared to week-old supermarket bread. It was light, soft, perfectly sweet—delicious. I couldn’t understand why Krispy Kreme hadn’t taken over the world yet; of course, it was only to be a matter of time. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Sedona's Energy Vortexes

The world’s most popular invisible tourist attraction

Allow me to get this disclaimer out of the way right up front: today’s interesting thing might not exist. But let’s be fair—I am not one to judge something by its ontological status alone. If it does exist, it’s very interesting indeed, and if it doesn’t, the widespread belief in its existence is equally interesting. I am referring to a natural phenomenon supposedly found in several places around Sedona, Arizona: something called an energy vortex.

The town of Sedona, about two hours’ drive north of Phoenix, is situated in an area of rare and stunning natural beauty. Towering rock formations and iron-rich reddish soil give the landscape an otherworldly appearance. This looks like what you imagined as the Old West, and countless films have been shot here. Kids will recognize it as the habitat of Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote. If you’re looking for a scenic vacation spot, Sedona is the place to go. It’s a favorite destination for romantic getaways, with a resort or a spa around every corner. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Globe Theatre

Shakespeare’s ideal venue, then and now

In my senior year of high school, all the students in my English class were required to write two term papers. But two of us were granted a special exception. The teacher gave my friend Nick and me the option of handing in alternative projects in lieu of the second paper. In my case, I had written a funny yet tragic account of an unhappy relationship—I use the term loosely—that I had experienced the previous summer. I was writing it just for fun, but my teacher found out about it and said I could type it up and turn it in as my second essay. I did—and got an A, too. Nick was the only student in class who was not required to type his term papers. As long as I’d known him—since kindergarten—he had said he wanted to be an architect. And he had developed an architect’s handwriting: every letter perfectly formed. The teacher’s offer to Nick was that he could build a scale model of the Globe Theatre out of Popsicle sticks instead of handing in a second paper. He declined, and I always thought that was a pity. We had learned about Shakespeare’s famous London venue in class, and I would have loved to see what it looked like. Besides, I couldn’t imagine that writing a term paper would have been more fun—but maybe that was just me.

I was thinking about this last year when I visited London for the first time. I had heard that the Globe Theatre, destroyed centuries ago, had recently been rebuilt, and I was eager to see it. I didn’t particularly care if I saw a play there; I just wanted to go inside and look around. When we got to the Globe, on the afternoon of our last day in London, they had just admitted the last tour group of the day; the only way left to see it that day was to buy tickets for a play. The box office informed us that the show was almost sold out. There were two options: we could buy either fabulously expensive tickets for seats behind a pole that would obscure our view, or cheap tickets for standing room. We debated which option we’d dislike the least, but by the time we had made up our minds two minutes later, all the remaining tickets for the day were gone. So all I got to see of the Globe Theatre was the outside, the gift shop, and the ticket office, none of which was especially impressive. (Note to self: plan ahead next time.) [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Walloon

Green Bay and the French connection

When I mentioned to Morgen that I was trying to come up with another good language-related topic to write about, she was silent for a moment, then proclaimed matter-of-factly, “Walloon.” This being a term I’d never heard of, I gave her my standard Scowl of Incomprehension, which she met with her deadly Blank Stare of Shame. This silent exchange is what we do when one of us is incredulous that the other could possibly lack some crucial piece of knowledge. Finally I broke down and said, “OK, what’s that?” Still expressionless, she said, “It’s a language spoken in Belgium.” Hmmmm. French I knew about, but not this one. Sounds really exciting. I said, “Is it interesting?” She said, “Maybe.” And that was that.

It turned out, as it always does, that she was right—it is interesting. But the very first interesting fact I learned about Walloon was one she wasn’t even aware of: Belgium is not the only place where native speakers of this language are found. The other is Green Bay, Wisconsin. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Bahasa Indonesia

The complex story of a simple language

During college I spent a summer in Indonesia, and naturally I picked up a bit of the language. When I say “the language,” I’m referring to Indonesian or, as it is known in Indonesian, Bahasa Indonesia (“language of Indonesia”). This statement is not as obvious as it may sound; Indonesia is home to hundreds of languages, and of these, Indonesian is not spoken as a first language by the majority of the population. But it is the lingua franca, so it’s useful for citizens and travelers alike. I found Indonesian to be very straightforward and easy to learn, free of most of the irregularities and annoyances of the Romance languages.

What I understood at the time was that Indonesian is, for the most part, the same language as Malay (Bahasa Melayu), the national language of neighboring Malaysia. I assumed that there were some differences, but that the main one was simply the name. I had no idea at that time of how either version of the language came into existence. It turns out that there’s a bit of a modern myth about the language’s origin—but the truth is even more interesting. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Style Guides

I’m OK, you’re okay

When I received the edited manuscript of one of my books from the publisher a couple of years ago, I was annoyed to find that every instance of “OK” had been turned into “okay.” Well, not quite every instance: in places where I was talking about a button on a computer screen that actually said “OK,” that was allowed to stay. There followed a lively exchange between my editor and me, she claiming that it had to be “okay” because that’s what the publisher’s style guide said, and me claiming “okay” is etymologically illegitimate, style guide or no. I couldn’t countenance the thought of having a book with my name on it include grating juxtapositions like “It’s okay to click the OK button.” I eventually got my way, though I lost quite a few other battles over differences between my style of writing and what the publisher prescribed.

In cases like these, a dictionary or English textbook will be of little help. Almost any dictionary will tell you that both “okay” and “OK” are acceptable, along with “O.K.” and “o.k.,” the only difference being which is listed as the preferred spelling. But preferred by whom? Under what circumstances? And why? The question is even trickier when it comes to recently coined terms. Should there be a hyphen in “email”? Is “Web site” one word or two? Is “internet” capitalized always, sometimes, or never? And then there are questions of usage that even scholars debate. Are expressions such as “for free” and “from whence” redundant? Is it mandatory, optional, or forbidden to use the pronouns “he,” “him,” and “his” to refer to people of either gender? [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Linguistic Categories

Women, fire, and dangerous things

English is widely regarded as a complex language, full of unpredictable spellings, irregular verbs, and etymological inconsistencies. Many other languages are easier to learn (at least for adults) because they’re more consistent. For example, people who speak both French and English often regard French as the more elegant and coherent of the two languages. But some things about French have always puzzled me—such as gender. All French nouns have a gender attribute, and your choice of modifiers and adjective forms to go along with the nouns depends on whether the noun is masculine, feminine, or neuter. But there’s apparently no rhyme or reason for why a given noun has a given gender. Logically enough, the word for man is masculine and woman is feminine, yet masculinity is feminine and vagina is masculine! Likewise, I can see no reason for aphorism being masculine while platitude is feminine. If there’s a logic behind French gender categories, it’s not apparent to most non-native speakers.

Lots of languages assign gender to nouns, and speakers tend to regard these odd inconsistencies as “just one of those things”—something one must memorize when learning a language, without trying to read too much significance into it. But nearly all languages have some implicit method of grouping certain nouns into categories, and some of these category divisions, which go way beyond the two or three so-called genders, are extremely thought-provoking. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Pittsburghese

America’s most underappreciated dialect

The city in which I grew up is a suburb of Pittsburgh—in the southwest corner of Pennsylvania, less than an hour’s drive from both Ohio and West Virginia. Decades ago, the region’s economy was largely based on the production of steel. Pittsburgh was a busy, thriving, industrial city, and the residents—who sometimes refer to themselves as Pittsburghers—were by and large blue-collar working families. But the numerous coal-powered steel mills and factories were not kind to the environment. The air quality made today’s Los Angeles look crystal clear by comparison, and earned Pittsburgh the unfortunate nickname “The Smoky City.” When the mills and factories began closing due to the lower prices of imported steel, Pittsburgh’s air began to clear, and the ever-industrious populace reinvented the city as a center of technology, medicine, learning, and culture. Today’s Pittsburgh is a beautiful city, made all the more colorful by cultural and linguistic remnants of an earlier era’s working class.

Modern Pittsburghers may be many things, but they are not untidy. The city has entirely shed its reputation for dirt and disorder. That’s because whenever something is dirty, someone will immediately worsh it. And if the contents of a room are not neatly arranged, you must redd it up. By the time I was six or seven years old, I had worshed my face and hands and redd up my room hundreds of times. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Hypercorrection

Taking the rules of language too far

For all its shortcomings, I’m quite fond of the English language and have always been a bit bothered when people misuse it. That’s not to say I never misuse it myself, or that I even believe in such a thing as perfect English. But whenever I hear or read a glaring grammatical mistake—especially one of the common ones that we were all warned against in school—I shake my head and sigh. It’s not that I won’t understand you if you say, “I ain’t got none,” but it’s awkward and inelegant, like using a pair of pliers to turn a screw. Even though it may accomplish your objective, there are better tools for the job. Of all my pet peeves about English, though, the biggest one was something that until recently I didn’t know the name for: a phenomenon known as hypercorrection.

Linguistic Overcompensation
Hypercorrection is what occurs when someone deliberately tries to avoid making an error in the use of language but overcompensates and in so doing makes another error. The classic example of hypercorrection is the use of “you and I” when “you and me” would actually be correct. The rule, which we were all taught as children, is never to use the word “me” in the subject of a sentence, so something like “You and me are friends” would be incorrect. But because this rule was so thoroughly hammered on, many people came to feel uncomfortable about using a construction like “you and me” anywhere in a sentence, even when it’s absolutely appropriate, as in “The inheritance will be split between you and me.” When someone mistakenly uses “you and I” in an attempt to avoid breaking the “don’t use ‘me’ incorrectly” rule, he or she has hypercorrected, which is to say, flubbed. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Klingon Language Institute

The final frontier of linguistic scholarship

When I was a child, I’d come home from school each day and immediately flip on the TV to watch my favorite show. The original Star Trek series—by then already well into its years of syndication—had me completely hooked. My mother used to tease me that I could summarize the plot of any episode by the time the first chord of the theme music had played. I was a serious junior Trekkie. Years later, during the run of Star Trek: The Next Generation, I rekindled my interest in the show, going so far as to attend a few Star Trek conventions.

Ironically, it was the conventions themselves that started to wear down my interest in Star Trek. I was a fan, but not the sort of fan who would wear a uniform, pointy ears, or a communicator badge. Not the sort who would memorize scripts, install Star Trek sounds on my computer, or collect autographs of the stars. Just an ordinary fan. The people I saw at conventions, on the other hand—these folks, God bless ‘em, were over-the-top Trek junkies. From the way they talked, dressed, spent their money, and generally obsessed over the show, it seemed as though many of them took it way, way too seriously. I liked Star Trek, but I never confused it with reality. The fan culture actually tainted my own experience of what should have been just a very good science fiction show. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Ventless Clothes Dryers

Laundry without the hot air

Nearly two years ago, my wife and I decided to move out of our trendy loft apartment and find a quieter, friendlier, and less expensive place to live. One of the criteria on our list was laundry facilities. Here in San Francisco, this is not a trivial issue. There may be plenty of beautiful Victorian and Edwardian buildings, but it’s relatively rare to find an apartment with a washer and dryer in the unit, and even shared laundry facilities in the basement or garage are not the norm. Although many thousands of people make their way to the neighborhood laundromat each week with a basket of clothes and a roll of quarters, that’s something we hoped to avoid. Years of experience have shown us that there is a positive correlation between convenience of laundry facilities and marital bliss. So we were most drawn to homes that had their own washer and dryer.

At a certain point in our search, we came across an otherwise suitable apartment that included a small extra room with hookups for a washing machine, but no space for a dryer—nor any way to vent one. That sounded to me like a problem that ought to have a technological solution, so I began searching the Web. Sure enough, I found a class of machines that used a single chamber for both washing and drying—put clothes in dirty, push a button, wait an hour or two, and take them out clean and dry. That by itself was interesting, but what really got my attention was the fact that these devices could dry clothes without any sort of vent. I had always assumed that hot, moist, linty air has to come out of a clothes dryer one way or another—it seemed like one of those cosmic truths you just couldn’t get around. But you can get around it, and surprisingly enough, one way to do so is to use water to dry your clothes. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Silicone Baking Products

The quiet revolution

One of my favorite pieces of kitchen kit has always been a simple plastic pastry mat I received as a gift many years ago. It did an excellent job of keeping flour off the counter and was imprinted with circles showing how far dough should be rolled out for different sizes of pie and tart pans. The mat also made it easier to get pie crusts into a pan, because you could invert the pan onto the dough and then just flip the entire assembly over. Try that with a countertop! Well, a few months ago, my faithful pastry mat finally gave up the ghost, so I headed down to my favorite kitchen supply store to buy a replacement.

Kitchen stores are dangerous places for me, just like hardware stores and computer stores. Everywhere I look there’s some newfangled, high-tech gadget calling out to me, and my mind races as I consider all the new things I could create if only I had this or that new tool. I thought I would be safe in the cookie-sheet aisle, though: all I needed was a simple US$5 plastic mat. And there it was, right next to…wait, what’s this? A $25 fiberglass-reinforced, nonstick, heatproof, silicone pastry mat! Although I did not immediately grasp how this technological wonder would improve on the old-fashioned plastic mat, it was shiny and had an irresistible texture, not to mention lots of impressive-looking words on the box. Guess which one I left with. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Tabasco Sauce

The pickled pepper potion

[Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Heat-Resistant Chocolate

Defying the laws of confectionary

I once heard a rumor that almost provoked a deep moral crisis. I have always had a profound, passionate, and unshakable devotion to chocolate. Equally strong is my contempt for mosquitoes (and I’d say that even if I hadn’t contracted malaria during a summer in Indonesia when I was in college). The rumor, which turned out to be unsubstantiated, was that mosquitoes pollinate the cacao trees from which cocoa is produced. I had been worried, because I didn’t know how I could maintain my belief that mosquitoes were pure evil if they were necessary for the creation of pure good. Luckily, I did not have to grapple with this serious philosophical issue and I could go on loving chocolate and hating mosquitoes without feeling any inconsistency.

The only real shortcoming of chocolate is that it has an unfortunate tendency to melt when you don’t want it to. Hot chocolate, hot fudge, and chocolate syrup are all fine if that’s what you’re expecting, but if you open a chocolate bar that’s been in a hot car, let’s say, and find that it has liquefied, you’re not going to get the experience you want. Then, of course, there’s the perennial problem of chocolate melting in your hands even when the ambient temperature is low enough to keep it solid. This is, so the ads would have us believe, the entire reason for the existence of M&Ms—a brilliant technological solution that doesn’t actually keep the chocolate from melting but at least keeps it from making a mess. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Powder Coating

Paint’s shocking competitor

During the three years I lived in Vancouver, Canada, I worked at an office in the back of a large building in an industrial park. Our company didn’t own the building, and as the smallest of several tenants, we didn’t merit a sign on the front. The company that occupied the largest portion of the building, and therefore had its sign in large letters facing the street, was Hudson Powder Coating. I had to explain this to visitors when giving directions, and they were always confused. “What is powder coating anyway?” they usually asked. I had no idea. All I knew was that as I drove through the parking lot, I saw a lot of miscellaneous metal objects sitting in front of the company’s loading area—things like bike racks, lamp stands, car parts, and folding chairs. In the morning, these items were unfinished, and in the evening when I drove by again, they were brightly colored. I inferred from this that “powder coating” must be something like painting, though I didn’t quite see where the powder part came in.

For reasons I cannot fathom, I never actually bothered to find out what powder coating was at any time during the three years I worked in the building with the powder coating company. When I finally managed to look it up, it turned out to be much more interesting than I had imagined. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Tabacón Hot Springs

The relaxing side of the Arenal Volcano

Volcanoes are generally considered rather scary, unsafe places. There was that whole Pompeii incident, of course, not to mention Mt. St. Helens. Any sensible person knows that you don’t want to be anywhere near a volcano when it erupts, and that volcanoes have the nasty habit of erupting at unpredictable and very inconvenient times. Nevertheless, dozens of active volcanoes around the world have become major tourist destinations. PR types minimize the danger, of course (“Over 27 months without a tourist fatality!”), and, statistically speaking, the odds do indeed favor a safe visit. But many thousands of tourists take the risk because volcanoes are so strange and interesting. Most of us know volcanoes only from stories that are set in faraway places and therefore have a mythological character; seeing an active volcano in person seems a little bit like seeing a unicorn—something that doesn’t seem like it could really exist.

In central Costa Rica, the Arenal Volcano offers the quintessential volcano tourism experience. Practically the entire economy of the nearby town of La Fortuna is based on tourism. There are hotels, lodges, restaurants, tours, hikes, and activities of every description that cater to people who make the long drive to the area for one reason: to hear the rumble and catch a glimpse of spewing smoke, ash, and lava from Arenal. But by far the most famous (and most expensive) attraction besides the volcano itself is the Tabacón Hot Springs Resort & Spa. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Ultrasonic Mosquito Repellers

The convenient, pocket-sized, battery-powered hoax

I like to think that I’m a reasonably open-minded person—neither credulous nor unduly skeptical. When a friend of mine told me he saw ghosts, I didn’t try to convince him he was hallucinating; I believe that he had some sort of genuine experience for which the terminology and imagery of “ghosts” provided an appropriate description. I would reserve judgment as to whether these were really spirits of the departed, but then, I have no reason to rule out that possibility a priori either. Things are frequently not what they seem; lacking solid evidence one way or another, there’s no point in being dogmatic.

There are some things, though, that lots of people persist in believing in the face of serious counterevidence. I am speaking, of course, of the decades-old meme that you can keep mosquitos away by using a little electronic gadget that emits ultrasonic sound. Let me get straight to the point: they don’t work. They have been scientifically proven not to work again and again over a period of quite a few years. Yet somehow manufacturers keep making them and people keep buying them, because the claim that they should work seems so plausible. As a public service, then, in these waning days of summer, I’d like to tell you the truth about ultrasonic mosquito repellers. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Revenge of the Analog Clock

Time for a pie chart

Author Douglas Adams famously made fun of earthlings for being “so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.” Shortly before he died, Adams gave a talk at the University of California, Santa Barbara (not far from his home), at the end of which there was a brief question-and-answer session. A woman stood up and asked Adams the question that had been bothering her for decades: what did he have against digital watches? The crowd probably expected him to toss off a witty one-liner in response. Instead, he gave a very thoughtful answer that, in true Douglas Adams fashion, made ordinary human behavior seem self-evidently absurd.

After admitting that his comment had originally been written in the days when digital watches were themselves fairly primitive (and, ironically, required two hands to operate), Adams couched his complaint—appropriately—using an analogy. In the early days of personal computers, he said, people got very excited that their spreadsheet programs could finally create pie charts. This was considered a revolutionary advance, because as everyone knows, a pie chart visually represents a part-whole relationship in a way that is immediately obvious—a way that, to be more specific, mere columns of numbers did not. Well, the hands of an analog timepiece form wedges that look very much like a pie chart, and like a pie chart, they represent a sort of part-whole relationship in a way that requires a bare minimum of mental effort to comprehend. Not so digital timepieces, which for all their precision say nothing about the relationship of one time of day to another. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Handshake

Coming to grips with gestures of greeting

The other day I was at a restaurant with some friends, and one member of our party arrived a bit late. Before sitting down, he started heading toward the corner of the room, and when someone asked where he was going, he held up his hands and said, “Demunification.” Although I had never heard that word before, I understood immediately what he was saying: he was heading to the lavatory to wash his hands in order to “de-MUNI-fy” them—MUNI being short for San Francisco Municipal Railway, the transit authority that runs the city’s buses and streetcars. When you’re riding a bus or streetcar that’s so crowded you have to stand, you end up holding onto the handrails, which perpetually feel (and probably are) grimy from being handled by untold thousands of people before you. Almost everyone I know who rides MUNI habitually washes their hands as soon afterward as possible, which is probably an excellent idea.

From time to time I’m in some sort of social situation where a handshake is expected, but my hands (whether MUNIfied or not) are not necessarily clean. This always makes me feel awkward—it’s one thing to decline a handshake when my hands are covered with motor oil or pastry flour, but in the absence of visible contaminants, North Americans typically consider it an insult not to accept a handshake. Meanwhile, personal observation informs me that an unknown but excessively high percentage of men routinely leave public restrooms without washing their hands. Thus, shaking hands strikes me as a relatively unsanitary gesture of greeting. Not that I’m hypersensitive about germs, but this made me wonder: considering the wide range of alternatives, how did the handshake come to be the standard greeting in this society? And hygiene aside, how can we make sense of all its supposedly deep and symbolic meanings? [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Giving Away the Razor, Selling the Blades

The curious strategy of loss-leader marketing

One day I opened up my mailbox, and there inside was a box from Gillette containing a brand-new Mach3 razor. It turned out that the box was addressed to my neighbor, which is just as well: the idea of shaving with a triple-blade razor seemed a bit—excuse me—over the edge. That was just a few years ago, and since then, the Mach3 has been superseded by models with four and five blades, with or without a vibrating feature—the mind boggles. But the twin-blade Gillette SensorExcel razor I used for many years also came in the mail for free, and also, coincidentally, wasn’t addressed to me—I got it from a friend who didn’t want it. Still, exactly as Gillette hoped, I spent many, many dollars over the years on their obscenely overpriced blades before breaking down and buying an electric razor. Like countless other people, I was sucked in by the “give-away-the-razor-sell-the-blades” concept. Old-fashioned and counterintuitive, this marketing gimmick is still going strong.

Razor-Thin Profit Margins
Around 1900, a salesman named King Camp Gillette dreamed up the idea of disposable razor blades. Before that time, razor blades were thicker and were simply sharpened when dull—a time-consuming and imprecise (not to mention dangerous) process that no one enjoyed. Gillette’s innovation was to make the blades thin enough and inexpensive enough that they could simply be thrown away when they dulled. At first, he couldn’t sell the blades for as much money as it cost to make them, but then he had a wacky idea: he would give away the razor handles. People who got them perceived them as being valuable—but only when fitted with one of Gillette’s blades. So there was a subtle yet forceful psychological pressure to maintain that value by continually buying the blades. After a few months of blade sales, the cost of the handle was recovered and Gillette began to make a profit. Within a decade, Gillette’s company dominated the razor market and made its inventor extremely wealthy. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Push Hands

The paradoxical secret weapon of t’ai chi

[Article Continues…]

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