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From the archives…

Cleopatra's Wager

The most expensive meal in history

A news article mentioned a hotel bar in New York whose drink menu includes a US$10,000 drink called “Martini on the Rock.” That works out to about $5 for the gin, vermouth, and olives—and $9,995 for the loose diamond sitting at the bottom of the glass. Patrons must order the drink three days in advance, and meet with a jeweler to pick out the perfect stone. The first person to order this drink paid a bit extra—$13,000—and instead of a loose stone, selected a 1.85-carat diamond engagement ring. (His girlfriend said yes.) Perhaps unknown to the hotel’s proprietors, this extravagant beverage has a fascinating historical precedent.

Et Tu, Cleo?
The year was 41 B.C. Mark Antony, one of the rulers of Rome, summoned Egyptian queen Cleopatra VII for an audience at Tarsus (in present-day Turkey). Antony ostensibly wanted Cleopatra to answer charges that she had aided Cassius, who had conspired with Brutus to assassinate Julius Caesar. But most people believe the real reason for the meeting was that Antony wanted Egyptian aid for an upcoming military campaign, and besides, he had the hots for Cleopatra. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Invention of the Wheel

The best thing until sliced bread

On occasion, you may have heard it said of some wonderful gadget, “This is the greatest invention since sliced bread!” Such a comment is intended to be both a compliment and a reference to how revolutionary and world-changing the invention is. It’s worth bearing in mind, though, that while people have been slicing bread for eons, pre-sliced, packaged bread has only been available since 1928, when Otto Frederick Rohwedder introduced the world’s first mechanical bread slicer in Battle Creek, Michigan. I don’t know what revolutionary invention the bread-slicer was compared to when it first appeared, but sooner or later, it all goes back to the wheel. Nobody seems to be able to come up with an older, or more important, invention than that.

Giving It a Spin
Before I began my curatorial duties here at Interesting Thing of the Day, I had never really wondered when the wheel was invented, much less why it was invented. That’s obvious, isn’t it? Everyone knows the wheel was invented to enable people to move stuff around more easily—a revolutionary alternative (so to speak) to carrying, pushing, or dragging heavy objects. Surprisingly enough, some historians and archeologists aren’t so sure about that. There is in fact a fairly good case for the hypothesis that the wheel was invented to facilitate pottery making. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Passglas

Precision measure for drinking games

I never cease to be amazed at how frequently the interesting things I merely imagine turn out to be real. For instance, my relentless research in the field of goblets and challenges led me to wonder whether there might be some special type of goblet used in drinking games. I turned as usual to the sacred oracle, the source of all wisdom in the universe, for guidance. And what Google told me, after a fashion, was that such goblets do indeed exist. In fact, depending on one’s willingness to stretch the definition of goblet, which in my case is boundless, there may be several very different sorts of goblets that figure in drinking games.

For example, there’s a dice game played in Bolivia called Alalay. It’s quite similar to Yahtzee, in that it involves rolling five dice, with scoring based on the values of various number combinations. As in Yahtzee, the dice are placed in a small container and shaken before being thrown. In Alalay, this container, which is made of stiff leather, is called a goblet. Alalay is sometimes played as a drinking game, though the goblet itself is never used for alcohol; it wouldn’t do to get the dice wet. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Wine Color Taste Tests

Questioning common sense(s)

An article titled “Can You Tell Red From White?” in the online edition of Wine Spectator Magazine a couple of years ago began with this line:

The New Yorker threw down the gauntlet. Wine Spectator rose to the challenge.

Whatever else you may say about the two magazines in question or the qualifications of the authors they hire to write about wine, this much is clear: Wine Spectator missed a critical opportunity for an excellent pun. In fact, so blatant was their oversight that it casts grave doubts on the magazine’s editorial sensibilities. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Hymir's Cauldron

Thor’s goblet-throwing prize

You’d be surprised how few literary examples of goblet-throwing there are. I mean, sure, this sort of thing shows up every now and then in your basic fantasy novel, but history isn’t exactly littered with the shards of goblets broken dramatically at the climax of some great epic tale. Except for one, of course: the Hymiskviða (The Lay of Hymir), a poem that tells the story of Thor’s heroic acquisition of Hymir’s Cauldron. This is the sort of story you read to your kids at bedtime—if you happen to live in Iceland in the year 1300 or thereabouts. For those not familiar with the story, here is an extremely abbreviated and very slightly accurate retelling.

Give Me a Cauldron Large Enough, and a Place to Stand…
The gods of Asgard were looking for an eternal source of mead, and they demanded that Ægir, god of the sea, provide it for them. Ægir, unhappy with the tone of their request, said he’d only do it if the gods could supply him with a cauldron large enough, such enormous vessels being rather scarce. Tyr, the god of war and justice, knew just where to obtain such an item: his father, the giant Hymir, had one that was “a league deep” (that would be about three and a half miles—certainly large enough to keep the gods drunk for a few millennia). But Tyr knew his father wouldn’t acquiesce easily, so he enlisted the aid of Thor, the god of thunder, to trick Hymir into parting with the giant cauldron. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Great Cork Debate

Thinking outside the bottle

When I was in high school, I had a darkroom in the basement. Because I didn’t do a large quantity of film processing, one of my biggest concerns was that the expensive chemicals would go bad before I had a chance to use them. Since it is primarily exposure to oxygen that damages photographic chemicals, I stored them in air-evacuation containers, which are basically plastic bags inside boxes. As you drain out the chemical through a special spout that sticks through the box, the bag shrinks, thus making sure no air gets in. This solution is simple, elegant, and effective.

The very same laws of chemistry apply to wines, and that is why wine is sometimes sold “by the box” in air-evacuation containers. It keeps wine fresher longer, and is even less expensive, in many cases, than bottled wine. What’s not to like? And yet, boxed wine is routinely ridiculed as low-class. Everyone knows that any decent wine will be stored in a corked bottle. It’s just The Way Things Are. It’s not about oxidation, it’s about perception. You have to do things right. Buying wine in a box is tantamount to buying wine with a screw cap. It’s an indication of poor quality. Or is it? [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Bhutanese Archery

Shooting game

One day Morgen and I were having a brainstorming session, as we frequently do, about interesting things that might fit in with certain weeks’ themes. The expression “hit or miss” came up, and we began talking about things that involve hits and misses. Morgen said, “Do you know what the national sport in Bhutan is?” I was embarrassed to admit I did not even know exactly where Bhutan is located; it’s simply not a place I’ve ever spent much time thinking about. Morgen told me that Bhutan is between China and India. Although this didn’t give me any strong clues, I made what I thought was a safe guess: “Soccer.” That turned out to be a particularly bad guess, because in 2002, Bhutan’s national soccer team was ranked 202 out of 203 worldwide; FIFA sanctioned a special match that year, at the same time as the World Cup finals, between Bhutan and 203rd-ranked Montserrat; the match was covered in a documentary film called “The Other Final.”

In fact, Bhutan’s national sport is archery. That fact alone, I think, qualifies as an Interesting Thing, but there’s more to the story.

Weapons of Play
Bhutan is a Buddhist nation, and one of the central precepts of Buddhism is a reverence for all life. So it seems somewhat incongruous that the nation’s favorite game involves a hunting instrument (or, depending on how you look at it, a weapon of war). But in Bhutan, the bow and arrow can only be used for play. In fact, when making arrows, one can use only feathers that were found on the ground; to kill a bird to obtain its feathers would be considered wrong. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

English Female Social Titles

Miss-ing the point

My wife kept her name when we got married. This being the 21st century, I wouldn’t have thought that would be in any way surprising or problematic. But in the modern English-speaking world, linguistic habits haven’t quite caught up with changing social conventions—many people (and computers) still assume that when a man and woman get married, the woman will take on the man’s surname. As a result, we get mail addressed to “Mrs. Morgen Kissell” and even, bafflingly, “Mrs. Liz Kissell”—Morgen’s given first name is Elizabeth, but she has gone by her middle name since birth, and has never, ever been called Liz. At least no one, to my knowledge, has called her “Mrs. Joseph Kissell,” which I think both of us would find rather offensive.

As annoying as such mistakes can be, I do sympathize with folks who no longer feel they have a proper, respectful, and appropriate title to use when addressing women. The title “Miss,” which used to refer to an unmarried woman of any age, has fallen into disfavor, except for young girls. And “Mrs.” is supposed to refer to a married woman, but only when using her husband’s last name. (Morgen certainly is neither “Miss Jahnke” nor “Mrs. Kissell,” but she can’t be “Mrs. Jahnke” either, because that would imply my last name is Jahnke.) So that leaves “Ms.,” which virtually every style guide now proclaims as the only reasonable choice, but which many people hesitate to use because it feels like an odd, newfangled, non-word. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Pennsylvania Dutch

The Germans of Lancaster County

Pennsylvania is a state (well, commonwealth if you want to be completely nitpicky) known for its linguistic, uh, irregularities. In the western part of the state, where I grew up, many people speak an endearingly odd dialect of English called Pittsburghese. Some town names have pronunciations that utterly belie their foreign roots. DuBois is pronounced “dew boys”; North Versailles is “north ver-sales”; La Jose is “la Joes.” Then, of course, there are towns that simply have goofy names—Eighty Four, Slippery Rock, and Punxsutawney come to mind.

I’ve Been to Pennsylvania; Ask Me about Intercourse.
But to put all these oddities in perspective, western Pennsylvanians rightly consider their geographic nomenclature downright bland compared to what you’ll encounter on the other side of the state. Drive four hours east from Pittsburgh and you’re in Lancaster County, an area that attracts tourists by the thousands each year for no other reason than that they want to be able to say they went through Intercourse to get to Paradise. (This makes for a roundabout route, as it turns out, but that’s only fitting.) Other nearby towns include Blue Ball, Fertility, Gap, Bird-in-Hand, Smoketown, and even (I swear I am not making this up) Kissel Hill. These place names seem all the more amusing because the area is known for its religious conservatism, being home to large numbers of Amish and Old-Order Mennonite folk in particular. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Folk Etymology

Lazing your way to a bigger vocabulary

I need to say a few words about woodchucks. (First let me pause while you say the rhyme to yourself. Go on, you know you want to. Get it out of your system. Good.) I never understood what the word “chuck” was supposed to mean in the rhyme. Chuck isn’t often used as a verb; when it is, its most common meaning is “to throw” (as in, “Chuck that AOL CD in the trash”). This is naturally not the type of thing we expect a woodchuck to be capable of (as indicated by the counterfactual nature of the question in the rhyme). So the real question is why anyone would have given this animal such a nonsensical name in the first place.

(As an aside, woodchuck isn’t the only nonsensical name this animal has. It’s also called a groundhog. Oddly enough, “groundhog” is a fairly literal translation of the Dutch word aardvark, even though aardvarks don’t look anything like hogs. Woodchucks (Marmota monax) are rodents, or more precisely marmots, and are not even distantly related to either aardvarks or hogs. The most salient similarity among the three species is a propensity for burrowing.) [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Malaria

Bad air, good vegetables

Malaria, as most people know, is a very nasty disease caused by a parasite that’s transmitted by mosquitoes. The disease is sometimes deadly, and always extremely unpleasant. The word “malaria” comes from the Italian mala aria, “bad air.” When the term was coined, it was commonly believed that malaria was caused by breathing in bad air—namely, the foul vapors emanating from swamps, latrines, and so on. It was a mere coincidence that the stagnant water that provided a breeding ground for mosquitoes also frequently contributed to bad air.

More importantly for our purposes, however, this classic misnomer gives me an excuse to tell a story. As I have mentioned once or twice before, malaria and I go way back.

How I Spent My Summer Vacation
When I was 19, I spent the summer in a remote area of Indonesia. One morning I started feeling a bit ill, and by mid-afternoon I had a high fever, uncontrollable chills, severe aches in delicate body parts, and a general feeling of complete yuckiness. My companions debated whether or not it could be malaria. The symptoms were correct, but I had been taking an antimalarial drug faithfully and there was some question whether I’d been there long enough for the parasite to incubate. After a day or so I went to a local clinic, had a blood test, and was told for certain that it was indeed malaria. I had expected to run into scary foods, treacherous hiking trails, and maybe even a cannibal or two, but I had never seriously entertained the thought that I might contract a serious disease on my trip. How interesting. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Mincemeat

The dessert that eats like a meal

I set out to find a simple answer to a simple question: Why is there no meat in mincemeat? It was going to be a tidy tale of how a misnomer was born. Look up a few Web sites, collect a few facts, wrap them in a nice story, and on to the next project. As so often happens, however, my research took a rather circuitous path as I kept discovering connections and facts that I’d had no inkling of when I started out. The story of mincemeat is more interesting—and convoluted—than I ever imagined.

Mincemeat is, I must confess, a topic about which I have never felt much passion. In my family, mincemeat pie was simply one of a half dozen standard Christmas dessert choices. I rarely had room for more than two, and in my personal hierarchy of dessert preferences, mincemeat ranked well below Johnny Bull Pudding and blackberry pie. On the occasions I did eat mincemeat pie, it made no particular impression on me other than provoking a vague curiosity at its name, since whatever the filling was, it clearly did not contain any meat. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Aproposisms

The right word (for ‘the right word’)

Don’t bother looking it up in the dictionary. The word aproposism isn’t there yet; I coined it just last year. And, if I may say so, it’s about time someone did. English is full of words that mean “the wrong word” in one sense or another: misnomer, malapropism, solecism, hyperbole, oxymoron, and so on, not to mention related concepts like misunderstanding, misconception, and misapprehension. This must show that English speakers value an apt choice of words and dislike an inappropriate choice. And yet, where is the word in English that refers to a choice of expression that’s just right? There isn’t one. Or wasn’t, until now.

There is, of course, the expression bon mot (“good word” in French), which refers to a clever remark or a witticism. But what if you’re not trying to be clever? What if you simply want to choose the best word for the job? You need to find an aproposism. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Urban Monorail Systems

The rise of Personal Rapid Transit

I’ve never regretted the decision I made a few years ago to live without a car. After all, if I walk down the hill a few blocks from my home, I can catch a subway, streetcar, or bus to take me nearly anywhere in San Francisco I may want to go. But every now and then, that “nearly” part causes me grief. There are certain spots in the city I can reach via public transit only by taking a subway, a streetcar, and two buses—and then walking for 20 minutes. The prospect of all that waiting and transferring, especially on weekends or when buses are running late, tempts me to take a taxi (which gets quite expensive) or rent a car (forcing me to worry about parking and traffic). Even in a compact city such as this one, getting from place to place quickly, inexpensively, and safely can be difficult. Owning a car can help in some ways, but for many of us, it would be more trouble and expense than it’s worth.

It’s a Bird, It’s a Train, It’s a…Taxi?
Several articles here on Interesting Thing of the Day have mentioned ways of addressing the urban transportation problem: car sharing programs, carfree cities (including Arcosanti), and personal flying machines, for example. A while back, a reader suggested I check out an innovative urban transportation system called SkyTran. Later, another reader wrote to tell me about a different urban mass-transit solution called the RUF (Rapid Urban Flexible) system. Although the two differ significantly, they are both monorail transit systems designed for cities. As I began reading about these, I discovered that they are just two among many similar proposed designs. Clearly, this was a meme worth investigating. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Carbon Sequestration

Greenhouse gas disposal techniques

As everyone knows, a lot of scientists are extremely concerned about global warming. Evidence suggests that the high levels of so-called greenhouse gases produced over the past half-century or so will result in higher temperatures worldwide over the coming decades. The additional heat could melt polar ice and raise the level of the ocean, causing flooding and eroding coastlines; it could also lead to more severe climate change with potentially devastating effects. Other scientists say that worries about global warming are overblown—that the temperature will not rise significantly (at least, not due to human activity), and that in any case, the results of a slightly increased average temperature would be mild rather than disastrous.

But no one disputes that the air has become quite polluted—you can verify this easily by looking out your window. One major component of air pollution is carbon dioxide (CO2), which is produced as a waste product when fossil fuels are burned. The level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen markedly since the beginning of the industrial age, and even if that change is not completely attributable to human progress, it’s not a good thing. Whether or not human-generated CO2 contributes to global warming, it clearly causes other problems. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Memetics

The science of idea propagation

Several years ago, a friend of mine gave me a book for my birthday called Thought Contagion. I had not heard of the book or its subject matter, the science of memetics, but I was fascinated by what I read. Author Aaron Lynch explained, concisely and convincingly, how some of the most significant beliefs in society came to be as popular as they are. By the end of the book I felt I understood, for the first time, a great many things that should have been obvious all along. I was even more surprised to discover that the things Lynch was saying were considered novel, and even somewhat controversial. What he described, simply and elegantly, is a compelling theory about the way beliefs spread.

What Memes May Come
The fundamental term in memetics is meme, which means a self-propagating idea. The term was borrowed from sociobiologist Richard Dawkins, who coined it in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. Roughly speaking, memetics applies the principles of evolution by natural selection to beliefs. In conventional evolution, genes that improve an organism’s ability to survive endure in future generations and spread throughout a population; those that hinder survival eventually disappear. By analogy, memetics says that ideas are subject to natural selection as well; those that most effectively promote their own survival multiply and spread, while those that don’t, don’t. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Hoverboards

The next generation of skateboards?

[Article Continues…]

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Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Halcyon Days

Why tranquility is for the birds

In the western world, December is a month of holidays—Christmas, of course; Boxing Day (except, strangely, in the United States); winter solstice; New Year’s Eve. But it’s especially the month for multi-day holidays. Hanukkah, which usually falls in December, is celebrated for eight days, Kwanzaa lasts for seven days from December 26 through January 1, and the “twelve days of Christmas,” contrary to popular belief, begin on Christmas Day and run through January 5, the day before Epiphany. As a result—notwithstanding all the touchy-feely greeting cards and made-for-TV movies—the waning days of the year are, for most of us, not a time of joyous and peaceful celebration but rather a protracted period of frenzied shopping, chaotic preparations, and harried travel. We long for January so we can finally get some rest.

Peace on Earth (or Sea)
In the midst of all this commotion, there’s yet another multi-day observance that often falls through the cracks: halcyon days, which begin a week before the winter solstice and end a week after. Halcyon days are not a holiday as such, but more of a mythological tradition. According to legend, this two-week period is associated with unusually calm seas; hence the common meanings of halcyon as “quiet” or “peaceful,” and by extension, “prosperous.” I could not imagine any two weeks of the year less suited to such a description, but the term has been around longer than most of our December holidays. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Personal Flying Machines

George Jetson, Buck Rogers, and you

[Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Oxygen Bars

I’ll have an O…Make it a double.

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From the archives…

Intaglio Printing

Duplicating under pressure

As I look around at the many printed items within arm’s reach—books, magazines, a calendar, posters, checks, labels, boxes, and so on—I am vaguely aware that nearly all of them made their way through a printing press at some point. And, since I’ve used rubber stamps and stencils, I have an equally vague awareness that any printing process is based on putting ink or other coloring onto some parts of paper while keeping it off other parts. But despite having worked in the prepress field for a while, I never thought very deeply about the methods for transferring ink to paper; terms like “offset” and “lithography” had no specific meaning to me. Even after I finally grasped how laser printers work, ink-based printing methods remained a mystery.

Every time I realize that I’ve been living in blissful ignorance about something so common, I feel sort of guilty—it’s the same feeling I had when I was in high school and knew that I’d studied just enough to get through my exams, but not enough to actually understand or remember anything. So I began some remedial self-instruction in printing techniques, determined to fill in those embarrassing gaps in my knowledge. Along the way, I learned all sorts of interesting things, but one printing method particularly struck my fancy: intaglio (in-TAL-yo) printing. [Article Continues…]

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Friday, December 10, 2004

Take Control Ebooks

Electronic publishing that works

One day I mentioned to someone that I write computer books, and the response was, “What are those?” Attempting to clarify, I said that I write books about computer software. “You mean like instruction manuals?” Well, no, not really; the books I write tell you things you’d never read in an instruction manual. I was a bit flummoxed when put on the spot to explain why someone would write books about computing—after all, bookstores are filled with thousands of them. But the person questioning me probably did not use computers very much, and probably assumed, reasonably enough, that the manuals included with hardware and software would be adequate to explain how the products work. If only that were true. These days, it’s rare to find a substantial printed manual packaged with a computer product, and even the electronic manuals are often skimpy and poorly written; they seem to tell you everything except what you need to know. For consumers, this is a terrible situation; for authors and publishers, it’s a tremendous opportunity.

And so, like many other authors, I’ve written books that help users to make sense of their computers and accomplish useful tasks. But because of the time required to edit, lay out, print, bind, and distribute paper books, the products my books cover are often outdated by the time a book even hits the shelves, and at best, technical books such as these have a very short shelf life. This situation is bad for readers, because they have spent a lot of money for a heavy, bulky chunk of paper that is no longer entirely accurate. It’s bad for authors, because we’ve spent months of our lives working on a huge project that paid relatively little up front, and our chances for earning royalties beyond the initial advance are slim if the books are on sale for just a few months. And it’s bad for publishers, who put up enormous sums of money to get books into print, and then sometimes end up with thousands of unsold, obsolete copies sitting in a warehouse. [Article Continues…]

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Thursday, December 9, 2004

TidBITS

The joy of text

For well over 10 years, I’ve subscribed to a free weekly electronic publication called TidBITS. It’s my favorite periodical—and that’s saying a lot, given the other magazines I read frequently, including Wired, National Geographic, Macworld, and Harper’s Magazine, not to mention The Wittenburg Door. But for some reason when I try to explain to people who are clearly part of the TidBITS target audience why it’s the coolest thing ever and why they should immediately subscribe, I tend to get blank looks that make me wonder if I’m wearing my TidBITS sweatshirt backwards, or if in my enthusiasm I’ve inadvertently started babbling incoherently. Perhaps I can set the record straight here.

Keeping It Simple
The subject matter of TidBITS, very loosely speaking, is the Macintosh and the internet. Back in 1990 when TidBITS was born, internet users were a small and elite subset of Mac users, who were themselves a small and elite subset of computer users. TidBITS was a way for this rarefied group of people to get the information they needed on a very narrow range of topics. Because the subscribers who originally made up the TidBITS audience were mostly academics and programmers, they tended to be very intelligent and have a low tolerance for fluff, so the publication’s focus and style were tailored to this group’s expectations. The result was, and continues to be, a weekly publication that has the two characteristics I value most: simplicity and quality. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

3-D Printers

Rapid prototyping and beyond

I remember the days when a laser printer was a fabulously expensive luxury item that only large businesses could afford; now anyone can buy one for a few hundred dollars. I also remember when a photo-quality color printer was far beyond the reach of the average consumer; now they’re so inexpensive that they’re often bundled with new computers at no extra cost. What’s the next generation in printing? If you have enough money—let’s say, US$25,000 and up—you can purchase a 3-D printer that will sit on your desktop and create solid plastic models of just about any shape you can throw at it. For a few thousand dollars more, you can even make full-color 3-D objects. Perhaps in a few years, these printers, too, will drop into a more interesting price range. But even now, for a certain type of user, they represent an extraordinarily quick and cost-effective alternative to older methods of generating accurate, tangible copies of three-dimensional objects.

Modeling Mice
When I was working for Kensington Technology Group, a major computer peripherals manufacturer, my job was to manage software development. But I shared an office with several people whose job was to design the hardware for new products—specifically, keyboards, mice, and trackballs. Because we needed to create products whose hardware and software features were tightly integrated, we worked as a team. I got to participate in the hardware development process, and my coworkers were also involved in shaping the features of our software. The process of designing a new mouse, say, is a lot more complicated than one might imagine. Over a period of months, we’d hold brainstorming sessions and focus groups, conduct surveys, hire artists to create concept drawings, and finally—many meetings later—decide on approximately what the mouse would look like and what its features would be. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Wikis

Free-for-all Web editing that works

Have you ever visited a Web page—perhaps even this very one—and thought to yourself, “I would have written that differently”? Maybe you’ve noticed a typo, an inaccurate statement, or important missing information. Maybe you just dislike the style of the writing, or feel that more needs to be said. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could just click a button and make your own changes to the page? On some Web sites you can, thanks to an increasingly popular method of online collaboration called a wiki, which is short for Wiki Wiki Web (another WWW).

Double Quick
The term wiki is a Hawaiian word meaning “quick”; wiki wiki means “really quick.” (Linguistic side-note: Other languages in the Malayo-Polynesian family also employ reduplication, or doubling, as a means of intensification. In Indonesian, you pluralize a noun by doubling it—anak is “child”; anak-anak is “children.” But reduplication can also apply a meaning of “even more so”—pagi is “morning,” but pagi-pagi is “really early in the morning.” I could tell you were wondering about that.) The first usage of the term wiki to refer to a Web editing mechanism came in 1994, when Ward Cunningham wrote a simple script in the Perl programming language that enabled anyone to edit pages on his site freely. His original Wiki Wiki Web is still going strong, and has sparked innumerable imitators, derivatives, and clones of every description. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

On-Demand Publishing

Revenge of the vanity press

Not long ago, conventional wisdom held that we would all be reading our books electronically by now—either on a computer screen or on a handheld electronic book, with the promise of digital paper still well in the future. And indeed, quite a few books (including some of my own) are available in one electronic form or another. But paper shows no sign of slowing down. Most of us would rather curl up with the processed corpse of a tree than with a digital display, and bookstores continue to do booming business.

The traditional model of publishing has a lot going for it besides inertia. Major publishers have brand recognition, extensive distribution arrangements, talented writers and editorial staff, and a product that’s in great demand. For best-selling authors and their publishers, this arrangement is near-perfect, and will continue to be so for a long time. [Article Continues…]

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Sunday, December 5, 2004

Weblogs Revisited

The phenomenon of public digital journals

By internet standards, I’m an old-timer. I began using the internet in the early 1990s, which must be about a century ago in computer years. That was before the invention of the World Wide Web, back when “commercial internet provider” was an oxymoron. When I saw my first Web browser, I didn’t get it. I thought, “What’s the point of this? I already have an email client, a news reader, and an FTP program.” After a year or two, though, the buzz increased so much that I decided I should check out that Web thing again. This time, I found a lot more sites and a lot more useful information. I liked the idea of the Web so much I decided to learn a bit of HTML and put together a personal home page. The first version of my page was pretty basic—just a few facts about myself, my work, and my hobbies—but over the years it grew until it became a virtual autobiography. Eventually I felt it was too much work to maintain, and I got rid of about 90% of it. But at its peak, I updated it every few days with news about what I was reading, where I would be traveling soon, and all sorts of other tidbits. Friends and family found it a convenient way to keep up with my busy life.

In a way, that home page was a primitive forerunner of what would today be called a blog (short for “weblog”). When I first wrote about blogs on Interesting Thing of the Day in mid-2003, I thought they were already sort of old news. Then 2004 was called “Year of the Blog,” with blogs figuring prominently in political races and increasingly influencing public opinion. But as recently as late 2005, when I mentioned the word “blog” to a friend in passing, she said, “Does that have something to do with computers?” My friend is no dummy, but her world doesn’t revolve around technology the way it does for many of us. And she’s not alone. Even as the internet extends its tentacles into segments of society traditionally on the fringes of technological sophistication, there’s still considerable confusion as to what the term “blog” actually means. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Sea Monkeys

New life for an old fad

I recently went to a toy store with my son, and found myself marveling at how little had changed since I was a kid. Alongside all the miracles of modern toy science were dozens of items that I remembered seeing on toy store shelves 25 years or more ago, and they looked exactly the same—except for the price. Slinkies. Magic Rocks. Ant Farms. Silly Putty. Nerf balls. And, of course, Sea Monkeys. I vividly remember the ads in comic books and magazines promising “Instant Life—Just Add Water!” The ads pictured anthropomorphic sea creatures with tails, smiling faces, and crown-like protuberances on their heads. These intelligent and fun-loving creatures could be your new pets for just a few dollars.

I never managed to prevail upon my parents to spring for the Sea Monkeys, but I always wondered just how close the real thing would be to the hype. A couple of years ago, when Morgen bought a Sea Monkeys set as a present for a friend, I got to see them in action. The little critters were, unsurprisingly, not terribly impressive as pets. However, in terms of both biology and marketing they are a marvel every bit as interesting as those ads implied. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Wieliczka Salt Mine

Underground city of salt

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From the archives…

Sinkholes

Losing ground

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From the archives…

The Story of Ketchup

How the tomato found its true calling

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