[View articles from current month (March 2017)]

From the archives…

The B-52's

The deadbeat club follows their bliss

Most people who have heard of the B-52’s know them as a dance band from a couple of decades ago, the group behind “Rock Lobster” and “Love Shack.” Their music is often regarded as lightweight and disposable, made memorable only by its quirkiness—Fred Schneider’s shouted or chanted vocals; Kate Pierson’s and Cindy Wilson’s outrageous wigs and luscious harmonies; the signature licks of guitarists Keith Strickland and Cindy’s late brother, Ricky Wilson. But this group of friends from Athens, Georgia, who named themselves after the local slang expression for a beehive hairdo, are icons who were once iconoclasts.

As recently as 1996, I knew nothing at all about the B-52’s. I was vaguely aware that there was a band by that name, but I had no idea what sort of music they played and couldn’t name a single one of their songs. Then a friend loaned me one of their CDs and I was immediately hooked. I thought it was the cleverest and most inventive music I had heard in a long time—funny, articulate, and very, very strange. [Article Continues…]

•••••

Saturday, October 30, 2004

Falling Back

Time (for a) change

In most parts of North America and Europe, among other regions, this weekend marks the last day of Daylight Saving Time, sometimes called “summer time.” On Saturday night we will all set our clocks back, enjoy an extra hour of sleep (or partying, depending on one’s disposition), and wake up to a slightly brighter morning. We will all be 3% happier, offsetting the 3% loss in happiness we experienced when we had to set our clocks forward and lose an hour of sleep back in the spring.

Two Steps Forward, One Hour Back
The mnemonic “spring forward, fall back” is meant to remind us which way to set our clocks for a given season (assuming they don’t have the intelligence to figure it out themselves, as they increasingly do). But this trick works well only in North America. In British English, the word fall is rarely used to mean “autumn.” And of course, outside the English-speaking world, where the homonym “spring/spring” does not exist, other memory aids must be employed. Although I find “spring forward, fall back” helpful, an even more useful mnemonic would be one that reminded us when these changes happen. I’ve never managed to internalize the pattern; last week I mistakenly sent a bunch of people an email message reminding them to change their clocks, only to issue a retraction minutes later when someone pointed out my error. The sheer arbitrariness of it all trips me up; it took me years just to get that “30 days hath September…” thing straight. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Tachyons

Tracking the elusive faster-than-light particle

As an amateur theoretical physicist, I know all about the principle that the speed of light is the ultimate speed limit in the universe. I’ll be the first to admit that it’s difficult to wrap my brain around this concept, but I accept that it’s true. Light not only travels really, really fast, it also travels at a constant speed, irrespective of the relative speed of an observer. Furthermore, any bit of matter that is in motion increases in mass as its speed increases, approaching infinite mass as it approaches the speed of light (and requiring, in theory, infinite energy to accelerate it to that speed). Taken together, this information rather strongly suggests that nothing can be made to travel faster than light. The details of the math and physics don’t fully make sense to me, even after reading the works of Einstein and several modern physicists. But then, these folks are professionals in the field whereas I am not; if they say that their long years of research lead them to conclude unhesitatingly that nothing can move faster than light, who am I to disagree?

Faster than a Speeding Photon
But in 1962, a group of physicists made the provocative observation that Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity does not actually prohibit matter from traveling faster than light, only from being accelerated to faster-than-light speeds. This may seem like an irrelevant distinction—and perhaps it is. But suppose there were a particle that came into existence already traveling faster than light. Because it did not have to be accelerated in order to reach that speed, it does not violate Special Relativity. Physicist Gerald Feinberg gave this hypothetical particle the name tachyon in 1967, from a Greek word meaning “speedy.” Later, the term tardyon was coined in order to identify ordinary, slower-than-light particles; these are also sometimes known as bradyons. [Article Continues…]

•••••

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Work Week and Vacation Variances

Stress, rest, and productivity

A Swiss friend was telling me one summer about his upcoming four-week vacation. I said something like, “Wow, four weeks!” and his reply was, “Yeah, that leaves me with only two weeks of vacation for the whole rest of the year!” When I asked how many years he had been working to save up that much vacation time, he didn’t know what I meant. “Six weeks of paid vacation per year is normal in Switzerland,” he said. “Why, how many do you get?” I told him that two was the norm but that my employer was especially generous and offered three—and more after you’d worked there for a few years. My friend was shocked. How could anyone survive with that little time off?

I had never really thought about it like that, because the mere possibility of longer vacations (or “holidays,” as they’re known in some places) had simply never crossed my mind: it just doesn’t work that way in North America. Not long after that discussion, I went to the doctor because of some symptoms that he said were caused by stress. “How many hours a week do you work?” he asked. I replied, “I don’t know, 50 or 60, give or take.” He said, “That’s the first thing you have to change. Work to rule.” I wasn’t familiar with that expression. He said, “You’re getting paid for 40 hours, so work 40 hours. Tell your boss it’s doctor’s orders; he has no right to demand any more than that.” And I thought: “As if!” Most employers in North America—especially in the high tech field—expect salaried employees to work as many hours a week as it takes to keep their projects on schedule, which is another way of saying they expect your work to be your life. To suggest otherwise would be to endanger your job. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Great Clock of Westminster

Big Ben and beyond

And now for something slightly different.

Last year on my first-ever visit to London, I took in many of the standard tourist attractions—dutifully snapping photos, reading the histories in the guide books, and so on. But I quickly realized that there was a disconnection between the kinds of things I find interesting and the kinds of things most tourists find interesting. Take Big Ben, for example. You can’t go to London without seeing (and hearing) Big Ben. It’s just one of those things. (And it’s a rather prominent feature of the skyline, too, so it would be difficult to avoid seeing even if you wanted to.) So we saw Big Ben. But other than having heard about it in children’s songs and stories since I was young, I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to be so excited about. I’ve seen clocks. I’ve heard bells. Here’s one that’s larger than average. So? [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Carbon Dating

Decay rates create debates

It has become my custom here at Interesting Thing of the Day to choose topics that I think will be unfamiliar to most readers—a sort of implicit “I’ll-bet-you’ve-never-heard-of-this” test. I think it’s fair to say that any educated person over the age of 10 or so has probably heard of carbon dating. But I realized the other day that even as an adult with a fair amount of scientific knowledge, I could not articulate exactly how or why carbon dating works. So I did a bit of research to fill in the gaps in my understanding, and not surprisingly I found the details to be quite interesting. What did surprise me was the huge number of Web sites and books vigorously attacking the legitimacy of what I had thought was a fairly straightforward, uncontroversial test. Apparently carbon dating is right up there with evolution in terms of the disdain it evokes from certain religious groups. As is often the case, the controversy over this topic is at least as interesting as the topic itself.

Carbon Copies
Carbon dating begins, logically enough, with carbon. High in the atmosphere, cosmic rays strike nitrogen atoms, producing a radioactive carbon isotope known as carbon-14 (or 14C); this is why it’s technically known as radiocarbon dating or, sometimes, carbon-14 dating. Carbon-14, along with the more common, stable (nonradioactive) carbon isotopes carbon-12 and carbon-13, combine with oxygen to produce carbon dioxide. In the process of photosynthesis, plants “breathe” this carbon dioxide, convert the carbon into carbohydrates for fuel, and then release the oxygen into the atmosphere as a byproduct. So some of the residual carbon in plants is carbon-14. Animals, in turn, eat the plants (or eat other animals that have eaten the plants), and thus the carbon-14 atoms propagate throughout the food chain. The result is that everything that is alive, or once was, contains some number of carbon-14 atoms. Although the number of carbon-14 atoms varies from one organism to another, the proportion of carbon-14 atoms to carbon-12 atoms is basically constant—and roughly the same as the proportion found in the atmosphere. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Rigo Artwork

Painting by the numbers

When it comes to art, I have very particular (and, often, unpopular) tastes. I’ve been to many of the world’s largest and most famous art museums, and I’ve seen and read enough to be able to talk fairly intelligently about what I’m looking at. But I must be brutally honest: of the many thousands of paintings, sculptures, photographs, multimedia installations, and other sorts of art I’ve seen in my lifetime, I have only actually enjoyed a tiny handful of pieces. My criteria for art enjoyment are quite narrow, having nothing to do with the time period in which something was made, the nationality of the artist, or the piece’s genre. If I had to deconstruct my art evaluation mechanism, I’d probably say I care about just three things: Is it visually appealing? Is it skillfully done? And is it interesting?

Needless to say, evaluating these three questions is a completely subjective matter, but in any case my answers tend to be “no” to all three more often than for most people. I don’t need art to be beautiful or evocative or metaphysically meaningful, but I do need it to flip those ineffable emotional switches in my brain that mean “this works for me.” Whatever else can be said about a piece of art, if I can’t grasp it in some basic way without reading a detailed treatise by the artist or some art expert on what it supposedly means, I don’t like it. In my book, the appreciation of a piece of art should be automatic, spontaneous, and immediate—not dependent on the knowledge of external facts. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

___-of-the-Month Clubs

Old marketing gimmicks never die

When I am unable to visit my parents at Christmas, which is more often than not, we generally exchange gifts through the mail. Or at least we did for a number of years. Then, as the internet evolved, my parents and I started sending each other boxes of wrapped gifts from Amazon.com. One-click shopping beats mall crowds and lines at the post office any day. A couple of years ago, though, in place of books or DVDs, my wife and I got a letter in the mail saying that we were about to begin receiving our Christmas gift from my parents in monthly installments.

The gift that kept on giving was a subscription to the Fruit of the Month Club. Once each month, Airborne Express arrived at our door with a box of fresh fruit. The selection changed each month. In December, for example, it was Mandarin oranges; in April it was kiwi and pineapple. The fruit was always of good quality, and the shipments were just infrequent enough that I was always slightly surprised when each package arrived. Although the shipments were fairly small, they were always a welcome treat that didn’t require a trip to the market—and the subscription is something I never would have thought to purchase for myself. Last year, instead of fruit, we got a subscription to a monthly box of chocolates, enabling us to continue our ritual holiday overeating throughout the year. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Pennsylvania Coal Fires

Heat under the street

There are a bunch of little facts that I sort of half-learned in elementary school, and have had a hard time remembering ever since. I remember the terms “Dromedary” and “Bactrian,” for example, but that crucial bit of information about which camel has one hump and which has two just didn’t stick. The same thing goes for names of cloud types—cirrus, cumulus, nimbus—I know the names but I forget which is which. And then there’s coal. I vividly recall learning about anthracite, bituminous, and lignite coal as a child in Pennsylvania, a state legendary for its coal production. But which type had which properties? It’s all a blur now. Since I did not pursue an education or profession in which this knowledge was needed, my brain apparently decided to delete those records to make space for really important information, such as Star Trek trivia.

I do remember, though, that when I was quite young my father took me to a coal mine that offered tours to the public. I thought it was absolutely the coolest thing ever. Getting to ride in that train down into the dark tunnels, seeing all that amazing machinery, and imagining the life of a miner was exciting and mysterious. I’ve always had a fondness for caverns and tunnels—maybe that’s where it all started. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Spontaneous Human Combustion

Answering the burning questions

As a kid, I always wanted to be a mad scientist or inventor of some kind. So I taught myself just enough about chemistry and electronics to be dangerous, and I often had some sort of project or experiment underway. Around age 16 or 17, I was hard at work on my latest contraption—using my bed as a workbench since my desk was perpetually covered with junk. This project involved some soldering, a task at which I was moderately skilled. However, as I was leaning over my work, trying to steady myself by resting my elbow on the mattress, my arm slipped and I fell forward onto the bed with the soldering iron sandwiched between my forearm and the bedspread. Apart from the initial shock, the first sensation I recall experiencing was the smell of burning flesh and hair, followed by the realization that I had ruined my bedspread, and then very shortly thereafter, a good bit of pain.

Any number of lessons could be learned from such an experience—for instance, “Don’t solder in bed.” It’s also a reminder that there are any number of ways to generate dangerous levels of heat in close proximity to one’s body. Fortunately, this incident did not set me on fire. But if conditions had been just right, could this run-in with the soldering iron have reduced me to ash? This is just the sort of question pondered by those who investigate the phenomenon known as Spontaneous Human Combustion (SHC). [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Writings of Carlos Castaneda

Sorcery, mythology, or both?

Bookstores are dangerous places for me. I invariably leave with less money—and more books than I’ll ever have time to read. But I have to support my habit: I’m basically an idea junkie. I like to learn things, absorb new ideas, and challenge my mind to form connections between concepts that don’t seem to go together. So I choose books not because I assume they’re true, but because I expect them to be interesting or thought-provoking. When I’ve finished reading a book, though, I usually have a pretty strong sense of whether or not I believe it. After reading a dozen books by Carlos Castaneda—along with quite a few criticisms of his work—I could only come to the conclusion that the stories he told may or may not be somewhat or completely true. This very uncertainty is one of the things that makes his books so interesting. I have since revised my conclusion—about which more later. But first, some background.

For years, as I browsed through second-hand books, I frequently came across Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. I’d invariably pick it up, glance at it, and put it back on the shelf. Then I read Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics, which had a brief quote from don Juan at the beginning, and that piqued my curiosity. Shortly thereafter, I ran across the book at a thrift shop and decided I could give it a whirl for 50 cents. Within a few pages I was hooked, and after finishing it I read all 11 of its successors. For better or worse, I was too late to be a groupie—in April, 1998, before I had finished reading all of the books, Castaneda died. Only then did I begin to realize the extent of the controversy surrounding his life and work, and the state of confusion he left behind among both fans and critics. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Membership Libraries

Exclusive playgrounds for book lovers

Books used to be such rare and wonderful things. I’m not talking about centuries ago, either. As recently as a couple of decades ago, when I was in school, I felt awestruck every time I visited the large public library downtown. It was amazing to me that as an ordinary citizen—a kid, no less—I could walk in and borrow nearly any book, no matter how old, famous, or important it was. Searching through endless card catalogs seemed like a mysterious black art, and I was always slightly surprised to find that a book I was looking for was actually on the shelves. Wouldn’t everyone in the city want to read this?

I’m equally amazed at the profound changes that have taken place in the last ten years or so with respect to how people think about books. On the one hand, there seems to be an increasingly common assumption that all useful knowledge exists in digital form, or is at least catalogued that way. Where once a search for information would begin at the library, now it seems that’s the last place many people look—if it isn’t on the Web, how important can it be? On the other hand, despite the ever-increasing numbers of books being published and mega-bookstores like Borders, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon.com, the meme of borrowing books from a library has lost a lot of its vigor. You can pick up any book you might want on the way home from work, or order it online with one click. For a certain segment of modern western society, going to a library for books is now seen as a sign of lower, rather than higher, class. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Bad Fiction Contests

A way to pass the time on dark and stormy nights

When Morgen and I visited Venice, we made the obligatory pilgrimage (along with all the other North American tourists) to Harry’s Bar. For those who have never heard of it, Harry’s Bar is a very nice, though small and perfectly ordinary, restaurant near Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square). It opened in 1931, taking its name from an American named Harry Pickering who had donated the capital to get it up and running. There is nothing especially noteworthy about this restaurant except the fact that it has attracted a great many famous people, who in turn attracted still other famous people. So in a way, it’s famous for being famous—not to impugn the quality of its fare, which is excellent. Perhaps the best-known celebrity to frequent Harry’s was Ernest Hemingway. He spent so much time there he had his own table in the corner, and he mentioned Harry’s in Across the River and into the Trees.

There’s Harry, and Then There’s Harry
Hoping to capitalize on the recognition of the name “Harry’s,” another establishment named “Harry’s Bar” soon opened in Florence, Italy. This Harry’s was not owned by, or related in any way to, the original. Nevertheless, following the precept that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, it set a precedent that would play itself out in a strange way decades later. In 1978, a replica of the Harry’s in Florence called Harry’s Bar and American Grill opened in Century City, California, near Beverly Hills. As an apropos publicity stunt, the Century City Harry’s sponsored an Imitation Hemingway Competition. Entrants were asked to write a single page in the style of Hemingway—understood to mean a convincingly bad parody of Hemingway—with the only stipulation being that the piece had to mention “Harry’s Bar” in a complimentary way at some point. The winner received a trip to Florence (not Venice) and dinner at Harry’s Bar there. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Bodleian Library

Oxford’s famous book sanctorium

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Wittenburg Door

The strange world of religious satire

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

White Noise

Color-coding sound

During the summers when I was growing up, my bedroom had an air conditioner mounted in the window. I loved the hot nights when I got to turn it on, but only partially because it cooled the room. What I liked best was the sound, which I found to be very soothing. Years later, when I was in college, I had a classmate everyone made fun of because he couldn’t go to sleep without having a radio on next to his bed—playing static. For some reason, the sound of static on a radio seemed goofy in a way that the sound of an air conditioner did not, but they amounted to roughly the same thing: white noise, which has a well-known ability to promote sleep by masking other sounds.

Most of us have seen white noise generators or CDs of white noise that are sold as sleep aids—sometimes especially for infants. A different class of white noise generator is used for testing and calibration of pro audio equipment. But what exactly is white noise, how does it work, and why is it called “white”? [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Anechoic Chambers

The sound of silence

When I began making audio recordings of Interesting Thing of the Day articles, I immediately realized that my office was not acoustically appropriate. There were too many extraneous sounds—fans, hard drives, and so on—and my fancy new microphone picked them all up perfectly. So I decided to set up a little recording studio for myself in a closet. The closet door nicely blocked out the sounds of the room, as well as most of the sounds from other parts of the house, traffic outside, and so on. The problem was that the recordings sounded like I was in a closet, or maybe a bathroom—the flat walls and ceiling added an unpleasant reverberation to my voice. In professional recording studios, the walls are usually covered with special acoustic foam to absorb most of those reflected sounds and give the sounds being recorded a more pristine character. I didn’t have any acoustic foam handy, so I covered the walls with old blankets instead. That did the trick: now my voice sounds correct, and I can always add reverberation or other effects later if I feel the need.

Recording studios are generally designed both to keep outside sounds from being heard inside the room and to keep sounds generated inside the room from bouncing around enough to be picked up by the microphones—and they invariably do a better job at both than my makeshift studio-in-a-closet. However, they’re still far from soundproof or acoustically “dead.” A noisy motorcycle or heavy truck coming down the road outside might still be heard inside, and the surfaces inside the room still reflect a bit of sound. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Cochlear Implants

The sound and the fury

Today’s article was going to be a pretty straightforward technological exposition. I was going to describe a procedure that can improve hearing in ways that conventional hearing aids cannot, mention some of the limitations and risks involved, and pretty much leave it at that. Then I got an email from a friend wondering if I was planning to cover the political issues cochlear implants raise for the Deaf community. Um…political issues? I hadn’t known there were any. But after a bit of research, I discovered that the controversy surrounding this procedure is at least as interesting as the procedure itself, which has been called everything from a miracle cure to genocide.

Can You Hear Me Now?
First, a bit of background. There are many different types and causes of deafness. Some kinds of hearing loss can be compensated for very adequately with just a bit of amplification—namely, a hearing aid. However, if there is a defect or damage in the inner ear, a hearing aid may do no good. Our perception of sound results from the vibrations of tiny hairs lining the cochlea, a spiral, fluid-filled organ in the inner ear. When the hairs move, the hair cells convert the movement into nerve impulses, which are then sent to the brain for decoding. If the vibrations never reach the cochlea, or if the hair cells themselves are damaged, no neural stimulation occurs and deafness results. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Binaural Beats

The magical music of the brain

Regular readers may recall an article here several months ago about brain machines—electronic devices that use flashing lights to promote relaxation. The idea behind these machines is that brainwaves have a tendency to fall in step with stimuli of certain frequencies—a phenomenon known as entrainment. So by flashing lights at the same frequency as one’s brainwaves would have during, say, deep meditation, a machine should be able to induce a meditative state artificially. It’s a fascinating concept, and there are numerous gadgets that use light or sound and light together to induce sleep, improve learning and creativity, and perform any number of other feats.

In the course of my research for that article, I noticed that there were also products that claimed to produce exactly the same effect using sound alone. Somewhat skeptical, I put on some headphones and listened to one of the sample recordings. The next thing I knew, I was waking up, wiping the drool from my keyboard. A half hour had gone by and I never knew what hit me. Whatever happened, the effect was as surprising as it was impressive. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Holophonic Sound

3D audio with just two speakers

I’m not your average home audio enthusiast. I’m one of a rare breed—an imaginary home audio enthusiast. That is to say, I know all about the technology behind stereo equipment, Surround Sound, Dolby, THX, and all those other impressive-sounding names; I have a respectable CD collection; I have forsworn analog audio and video; and I know exactly what my home theater setup would look like…if I had one. There are imaginary speakers all around my living room, wired to an imaginary amplifier, tuner, CD changer, and digital media receiver; these nicely complement my imaginary widescreen plasma TV. The problem is not knowing what I want, how to hook it up, or where to put it; the problem is that my cheap TV and boom box reproduce sound adequately, and I have not yet convinced myself that my music-listening or DVD-watching experience would be enough better with thousands of dollars of audio equipment to justify the cost. Of course, it’s also a problem that what my imagination says is adequate to provide the ideal listening environment changes as technology improves.

When I was a kid, the term High Fidelity still meant something—it set apart audio equipment that had been deliberately engineered for faithful sound reproduction and a high signal-to-noise ratio from cheaper, cruder devices. At a certain point, though, pretty much everything was considered “Hi-Fi”; the new buzzword was stereo. Having equipment and recordings with two discrete channels of audio—conveniently matching the average number of human ears—was seen as the new sign of audio competence. Then there was the shift from the analog world of tubes, tapes, and vinyl to the digital world of microprocessors and CDs, a new standard of audio quality. And now we’re into a new phase: an increasing number of carefully positioned speakers and subwoofers to simulate the 360° audio field of the cinema. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Array Microphones

The more (microphones) the merrier

It all comes back to Star Trek. Whenever I have a complaint about the way technology works—or doesn’t—a little voice in the back of my head says, “They don’t worry about this on Star Trek.” One of the things they don’t, apparently, worry about aboard starships a few centuries hence is being understood by computers. Keyboards and mice, we are led to believe, are relics of the distant past, and voice recognition has been perfected. That’s a rosy and probably overly optimistic future, but one small aspect of the Star Trek computer interface is closer than many people realize. Have you ever noticed that when giving spoken commands to the onboard computer, Enterprise crewmembers never worry about where the microphone is located? Somehow, the entire ship manages to listen to everything that’s spoken, and intelligently pick out particular voices—as well as determining what words should count as commands. While we’re not quite there yet, technology has taken a meaningful stride in that direction, thanks to devices called array microphones.

The Inglorious Legacy of Speech Recognition
But first, a story. In late 1993, I was working as a computer graphic artist for a major electrical equipment manufacturer. My friend David was in charge of maintaining the group’s network of Macintosh computers, and one day he invited me into his office to see the company’s latest acquisition: a brand new Quadra 840av computer. David was grinning proudly because he got to play with it before anyone else, and he was eager to see my reaction to the machine’s highly touted voice-recognition capabilities. Apple had included a special digital signal processing (DSP) chip in the computer whose main purpose was to make voice recognition fast enough for day-to-day use. Having read the reviews already, I knew that I should be able to speak any menu command and have the computer execute it without getting anywhere near the keyboard or mouse. So I stood near the microphone and said, “Computer, open Microsoft Word.” It did. Now I was grinning too. “New. Paste. Select All. Text to Table.” I rattled off a bunch of commands and the computer dutifully executed every single one, instantly and perfectly. I was in geek heaven. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Audium

San Francisco’s Theatre of Sound

Last night I did something I hadn’t done in perhaps 20 years, and thought I’d never do again. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit this, but under the circumstances it seemed like the right thing to do. I…um…drank a cup of instant coffee. Now I realize this will come as a shock to those who know the seriousness with which I approach coffee. (I have a saying: “You can take your coffee light, but you must never take it lightly.”) But there was a method to my madness, and I hope that a few words of explanation will put my behavior in context. The scene of my transgression was a little-known San Francisco institution called Audium. It is the world’s only venue devoted exclusively to the performance of pure sound.

Audium is a unique and highly specialized theatre. The room where the performance takes place is actually a building-within-a-building, completely isolated from outside sounds. About four dozen chairs are arranged in three concentric circles, with 169 speakers of all shapes and sizes located around the room. Some speakers are suspended from the ceiling, or hidden behind the walls, under chairs, or beneath the floating floor. You’re completely surrounded by speakers, so all seats are equally good. It’s almost like being in a planetarium, except there’s nothing to see—the performances take place in complete darkness. You come to Audium to experience a total immersion in sound. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Flywheel Batteries

A new spin on energy storage

A friend of mine recently installed solar panels on his roof to generate electricity. They were quite expensive, but my friend considers it an investment that will pay for itself in lower electricity bills over a period of decades. Of course, the panels generate electricity only when the sun is shining. The house is still connected to the electrical grid just like every other house in the neighborhood, but in such a way that it uses electricity from the grid only when the demand is greater than the output from the solar panels. When the panels are producing more electricity than is being used, the electric meter spins backward, and the electric company effectively buys the excess power. So if there were a power outage, the house would have electricity only during the day.

Homes that are “off the grid” and use solar panels or windmills to produce electricity must store the excess for times when insufficient power is being produced. The usual way to do this is to install a large bank of lead-acid batteries, similar to the ones used in cars. When electricity is being generated, it’s stored in the batteries, and when it’s needed, it’s drained from the batteries. The very same principle is used in hybrid gasoline-electric cars, on the International Space Station and in a number of satellites and spacecraft. It’s also fundamental to an uninterruptible power supply (UPS), which you can purchase to keep your computer going for a while or provide emergency lighting in the event of a power outage. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Egely Wheel

Vital energy measurement for the masses

In Chinese, it’s called ch’i (or qi). In Japanese, it’s ki. Variously translated using terms like “vital force” and “internal energy,” it is the name for a type of invisible power that circulates through the human body. It can be stimulated through acupuncture or ch’i kung (qigong) exercises, blocked by bad posture, enhanced with a proper diet, and depleted by stress, illness, and negative emotions. You can’t see it, nor is it visible indirectly to the tools of modern medical science, but many people consider it every bit as real as air or blood.

I’ve been aware of this concept for many years, and it’s mentioned at least a few times in every t’ai chi class I take. Although my teacher may talk about ch’i as though it’s tangible, I’ve always thought of it as a metaphorical way of discussing a bundle of abstract concepts—a useful fiction, in other words, just like “spirit” or “love” or “peace.” No one claims to be able to locate someone’s spirit physically within the body, but it’s nevertheless a handy word for talking about certain notions that are not quite covered by more mundane terms such as “brain” or even “mind.” [Article Continues…]

•••••

Thursday, October 7, 2004

The Evolution of Scrolling

Reinventing the wheel

Author’s Note: This article was updated in early 2006 to reflect some changes in the industry since it was originally posted.

When I’m not writing about interesting things, I spend my time writing computer books and doing the odd consulting job here and there—projects that hark back to the nine years I spent managing software development for high-tech companies. I spent five of those years working for Kensington Technology Group, a company best known for its mice and trackballs. You may not think of mice as the most cutting-edge computer peripheral, but it’s hard to imagine where we’d be without them. And I was privileged during the time I was at Kensington to be involved in the development of some extremely cool input-device technologies. This is probably going to sound like a thinly veiled Kensington commercial, but I make no apologies: even though I don’t work there anymore, I’m still a huge fan of their products. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Car Sharing Programs

The stress-free alternative to car ownership

For all the benefits automobiles provide, their impact on air quality has been quite harsh. I’m as concerned about the environment as the next person, and as I look out over the smog-filled skies of California, I can’t help but be annoyed at the millions of cars spewing pollutants into the air. I’m driving one of those cars, of course: modern life being what it is, the need to get from place to place seems to take precedence over the need to breathe. Still, my conscience is clearer than the air because the car I’m driving is owned by a nonprofit organization that aims to reduce the number of cars on the road. In this city, as in a growing number of places around the world, modern technology has joined forces with ages-old ideas of community ownership to produce a brilliant new system of car sharing.

I have been aware of the concept of car sharing for years, but I must confess that it took a while for me to warm to the idea of participating personally. I had owned a car almost since I was old enough to drive, and the notion of not having my own car—and the freedom it provided—was hard to accept. I imagined it to be like carpooling: an idea I agreed with in theory, but could never see myself putting into practice. I didn’t want to be rigidly tied to someone else’s schedule, without control over where I drive and when. It took a good strong dose of city driving to enable me to see the light. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Automatic Transmissions for Bicycles

Reinventing the two-wheeler

When I first learned to drive, I learned on a car with a manual transmission. It never seemed especially difficult because that was what I got used to. In fact, the first time I had to drive an automatic, I remember being very confused. What was I supposed to do with my left foot? Do I not have to shift at all? And if it’s automatic, then what’s with all these different choices on the gearshift lever? I quickly got the idea, of course, but still preferred the increased control and responsiveness I got from making my own decisions about when to shift. It would therefore seem that I should have the same attitude about bicycles, which not only require manual shifting but typically have many more than four or five gears. But manual bicycle transmissions have always given me trouble, and I’ve frequently wished I could have the convenience of an automatic transmission on a multi-speed bike.

Yanking My Chain
For the record, I am not what you’d call an avid cyclist. I own a bike—actually a fairly nice one—that over the past few years I’ve ridden, on average, once or twice a year. Not that I feel I need to make excuses, but I live in a part of San Francisco that isn’t especially bike-friendly (on a hill, no less), and the vast majority of places I need to go are much easier to reach by train or by bus. Nevertheless, I can’t imagine not owning a bike, and I like the idea of bike ownership very much—good exercise, good for the environment, and so on. But even when my bike was my sole form of transportation a number of years ago, I never fully grasped the way bicycle gears worked. That is to say, I understood the mechanics, but actually using them was another story—the logic of how one must manipulate those levers to reach the desired balance between torque and speed always seemed a bit like a black art. It was not a simple linear progression of lower to higher as on a car, but a function of the ratio of the front gear size to the rear gear size, both of which are variable. My usual practice was just to fiddle with the controls until pedaling felt about right, then leave them where they were until I couldn’t stand it any longer. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

NextBus

Friendlier mass transit through technology

One evening Morgen and I were at a dreams group meeting way across town. The most direct route home was by way of San Francisco’s MUNI light rail line, but as we approached our stop, we saw that we had just missed a train. Knowing how infrequently trains tend to run late at night, a friend who was waiting with us wondered out loud how long we might have to wait for the next one, and whether we should consider finding an alternate route. I pulled my cell phone out of my pocket, and after a few clicks on the keypad, I announced: “Looks like 11 minutes.” We decided to wait. Sure enough, exactly 11 minutes later, the train arrived. This little trick came courtesy of a high-tech service called NextBus.

Location, Location, Location
The idea behind NextBus is sophisticated yet elegant. Every vehicle on a transit line is equipped with a rooftop device that contains a Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver and a radio transmitter. The GPS receiver constantly tracks the vehicle’s exact location by satellite. This information is transmitted to a central computer, which calculates the amount of time it should take that vehicle to reach its next several stops, based on its current speed, typical travel time, and other variables. These predictions are continuously recalculated, so that even with delays, traffic, or detours, the estimates remain highly reliable. The information is available in real time via the Web and can be viewed using the built-in browsers on most cell phones and PDAs. In addition to time estimates for particular stops, you can even see a live map showing the locations of all the vehicles being tracked. Digital displays are also posted at some bus stops and shelters for added convenience. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Fortune Cookies

The authentic Japanese-American Chinese treat

For reasons I am at a loss to explain, I never tasted Chinese food until I went to college. Around the middle of my freshman year, I decided to make myself a “to do” list of experiences I’d always wanted to have. One of those things was trying Chinese food. Not long afterward, my roommate decided to take my cultural enlightenment into his own hands. “We’re going to Chinatown for supper tonight,” he said. Not only would he not take no for an answer, he even told me it was going to be a double date and who I was to ask out. I dutifully phoned the woman in question and off we all went, driving about an hour from the campus into the heart of Manhattan. That evening I had my first egg roll, my first wonton soup, and my first lo mein; I even managed to get the hang of chopsticks pretty readily. And needless to say, the meal ended with the obligatory fortune cookies, another novelty I’d never seen before. I’ve been a fan of Chinese cooking (and fortune cookies) ever since.

My adopted hometown of San Francisco also has a large and vibrant Chinatown, and I was delighted to learn that fortune cookies were in fact invented here. When we got married, Morgen and I decided to have a San Francisco-themed wedding. In addition to the San Francisco-shaped wedding cake (really), we got a bunch of those cardboard Chinese take-out containers, filled them with treats, and distributed them to all of our guests. Among the goodies was a custom-made fortune cookie with a special message thanking guests for attending. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Pastrami

Cure for the common deli

Sometimes the ideas for interesting topics come to me in rather roundabout ways. For instance, I was trying to come up with just one more topic that could somehow be construed as involving things that are stuffed. As usual, I asked my wife, Morgen, if she had any ideas. She made a few suggestions, none of which really grabbed me. Finally she said she was stumped and apparently gave up. A few minutes later, however, she handed me a book by Patricia Volk titled Stuffed: Adventures of a Restaurant Family. That was, of course, a very promising sign. Then she pointed out that the author’s family had run a restaurant in New York called Morgen’s—spelled the same way as my wife’s name. A lovely coincidence. (Morgen, it turns out, is the maiden name of the author’s mother—and also the name of a beagle that Volk and her sister once owned.) Flipping a few pages ahead, my wife showed me a picture of the author’s great-grandfather, Sussman Volk, whose claim to fame had been that he “brought pastrami to the New World.” Now we were getting somewhere.

All right, I understand that pastrami is not ordinarily stuffed or used to stuff anything else, but that’s not the point. The point is that I had never spent so much as five seconds thinking about pastrami before, but now that I knew there was at least one interesting story about it, I suddenly began to realize there were other questions to ponder too. Such as: What is pastrami, anyway? [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Piñatas

History of a breakthrough

I can’t remember when I first learned of the existence of piñatas, but it must have been at a very early age. Perhaps a kindergarten teacher was demonstrating papier-mâché and told us that people sometimes use it to make colorful candy jars that you can break open with a stick at a birthday party. There’s nothing about this concept that any kid wouldn’t appreciate. Candy: good. Party games: good. Wanton destruction of decorative objects with full parental consent: good. All in all, a great concept, and I always wondered why I didn’t get to have one at my birthday parties.

Then one day, I went to a friend’s birthday party and had my first and only hands-on experience with a piñata. In fact, “hands-on” is an exaggeration. Like each of the other children, I was blindfolded, spun around, and allowed three swings with a long stick in what I could only guess was the right direction. I didn’t break the piñata; I don’t think I even hit it—the adult who was tugging at the rope from which the piñata was suspended to “make the game more challenging” saw to that. Then it was the next kid’s turn, and he had essentially the same experience. Finally, the birthday boy had his turn, and in what can only be described as an incredible coincidence, he managed to beat the stuffing out of the thing. Did I then at least get my fair share of the spoils? I did not. Being the deferential type, I did not push and shove to gather up the candy, and by the time I got to it, all the good stuff was gone. By the end of the party I had completely revised my opinion of piñatas as being a really bad idea. [Article Continues…]

•••••

Archives

August 2007
December 2006
November 2006
September 2006
May 2005
April 2005
March 2005
February 2005
January 2005
December 2004
November 2004
September 2004
August 2004
July 2004
June 2004