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From the archives…

Leaf Cutter Ants

A different kind of deforestation

I’m a city person at heart, but every now and then I like to get far away from the chaos and soak in some nature. On the two trips I’ve taken to Costa Rica, I’ve found it ideal for such a getaway. It’s quite a contrast from my usual environment—everything from the food to the climate is different, not to mention the language, driving habits, and so on. But we adapt rapidly, as humans tend to do. After a few days, we become accustomed to the heat and, to a lesser extent, the humidity. We get used to seeing the occasional frog or lizard in the shower. The sights, sounds, and smells which were so foreign just a week earlier begin to seem commonplace. “Honey, look! Up in the tree!” one of us will say. What, another sloth, a family of monkeys, a toucan? Ho hum. Been there, done that. The novelty of such sightings wears off much too quickly.

The Ants Go Marching One by One, Hurrah, Hurrah
Such was the case with leaf cutter ants. At first you think it’s an optical illusion. You’ll glance at the ground and detect a line of movement, just a rustle. You look at a bare strip in the grass and think: The leaves can’t possibly be marching across the ground. You try to figure out what you’re seeing, whether it’s moving plants or plant-shaped bugs of some kind. On closer inspection—much closer—you see tiny ants, almost blending into the soil, carrying comparatively huge slices of leaves in a long column. Ah: leaf cutter ants. Yes, I think I read about them somewhere. They climb trees, slice up the leaves, and carry them off to their nests. Got it. Once you’ve figured out what it is, it doesn’t seem especially remarkable. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Poison Dart Frogs

Pretty to look at, but don’t put them in your mouth

Where I come from, frogs were always considered harmless, even comical, creatures. Not that you’d want to have one in your bathtub with you, but you imagined them leading a leisurely amphibian life, hopping from one lily pad to the next, keeping the pond free of insects, and croaking happily away. Kermit, of course, epitomized the friendliness and goofiness of frogs. He sang, “It’s not easy being green,” but his biggest problem seemed to be that his girlfriend was a pig.

In countless high school biology classes, students have had to set aside their anthropomorphic image of frogs to dissect them and study their anatomy. Although the students sometimes consider this quite unpleasant, you could hardly imagine a less scary specimen. And of course there’s fried frogs’ legs, a fairly bland but unobjectionable dish I’ve enjoyed in New Orleans. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Mate

The national beverage of Argentina

I’m a coffee person. I wouldn’t say I’m addicted to it, but I do certainly enjoy drinking it on a more or less daily basis. Sometimes two or three times a day. In fact, now that I think about it, I could use a cup right now. Excuse me. (Time passes.) Ah, that’s better. I do not drink coffee for my health, although I am aware of studies suggesting that coffee consumption in moderation may reduce the risk of colon cancer, kidney stones, heart disease, and even Parkinson’s Disease. I don’t even, for the most part, drink it for the caffeine. Partly it’s the aroma that I find so appealing, and partly it’s just the soothing effect of a warm beverage sliding across my tongue and down my esophagus.

Many of my friends, however, are tea people. I have nothing against a nice cup of tea now and then, and of course tea ably fills that hot beverage need. But in terms of aroma and both psychological and physiological impact, tea just doesn’t do it for me. Once again, tea’s supposed health benefits—of which there are, I admit, far more than those of coffee—don’t quite tip the scales. Maybe I’d be 5% healthier if I switched from coffee to tea, but then, maybe I’d also be 10% grouchier. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Argentinosaurus

Contender for the world’s largest dinosaur

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From the archives…

Gaiman

New Wales in Patagonia

Argentina has no shortage of bookstores. In some of the busier shopping districts of Buenos Aires, it’s not unusual to see half a dozen of them in a single block—all apparently doing brisk business. We visited many of these, and showed uncharacteristic restraint, leaving with just a few books altogether. Of course, the selection of English-language books was typically limited, though you could find Spanish translations of nearly any major English book you could name. For example, I picked up a Spanish copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. On the copyright page, it said that this book was also available in Latin and Welsh translations. The Latin bit surprised me: I can’t think of anywhere other than Vatican City where Latin is still used conversationally, and I don’t expect many folks there are keen on reading stories about wizards and witches. Welsh, on the other hand—that can certainly constitute a reasonable market, especially in Patagonia.

Looking for New Wales
In the mid-1800s, many residents of Wales felt their territory, culture, and language were being overrun by the English. Realizing they were hopelessly outnumbered, a group of them decided to look for a place far away where they could transplant a piece of Wales and control their own destiny. Patagonia offered a familiar climate and an appropriately remote location, far from English influence. So in 1865, 159 settlers, led by Rev. Michael D. Jones, sailed aboard a ship called Mimosa and landed in a sheltered bay on the coast of Argentina known as Golfo Nuevo. They initially set up residence in a port town that came to be called Puerto Madryn, but soon thereafter most of the colonists moved about 100km (60 miles) to the south, building several small towns along the Rio Chubut—one of the few fertile regions in this part of Patagonia. Among these towns are Rawson, the provincial capital near the coast; Trelew, a hub of commerce and transportation about 20km (12 miles) to the west; and a further 16km inland along the river, Gaiman. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Legend of Deolinda Correa

Unofficial saint of the desert

Tour guides, docents, and professional speakers of all sorts love to ask their audiences questions to which the answers are obvious. They do this in order to “encourage participation,” but I always find these exchanges patronizing. “Who can tell me the title of the seminar you’re currently attending? That’s right! Communicating Clearly. Now if we’re not communicating clearly, how are we communicating? Anyone? Yes! Unclearly!” Ugh. So I don’t like to encourage this sort of behavior. If you have facts to relate to someone, then relate the facts. If you can’t ask genuinely useful questions, find some other way of involving your audience.

So there we were in a van with seven other tourists, a driver, and a chipper guide who was eager to practice both her English and her professional guide skills. We were a captive audience in the only vehicle for many miles on one of the narrow highways that stretch across Patagonia. It was going to be a long ride, and we did pay a lot of money to be there, so we tried to make the best of it. “Who can tell me what meteorological feature this part of Patagonia is best known for?” she asked. Silence. We all knew. She knew we knew. No one wanted to play. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Caleta Valdés

Defying continental drift

The Argentinean portion of Patagonia comprises five provinces, of which the northernmost one is known as Chubut. You have to fly about two hours southwest from Buenos Aires to get there, yet it’s still over 1,000km (about 600 miles) from the tip of the continent—just barely into Patagonia when you consider its overall scale. This impossibly dry, windy, and desolate area is as far south as Paul Theroux got in The Old Patagonian Express. He felt he was nowhere, and it was here that he experienced his much-quoted epiphany that nowhere is a place. Although I was to discover a much more varied and inviting landscape a few days later as we traveled deeper into Patagonia, I have fond memories of the quiet, empty, and rugged steppes of Chubut.

Wonders Around Every Corner
Our guide had arranged for us to spend an entire day visiting one of the region’s most popular areas, Peninsula Valdés, a provincial park that is home to more wildlife than you can shake a camera at. This peninsula is really more like a large island connected to the mainland by a narrow isthmus. In certain seasons—though not when we were there—whale watching is the peninsula’s big industry, as migrating southern right whales and orcas frequent the waters just off the coast. We did see plenty of elephant seals and sea lions and a variety of birds, not to mention astonishing numbers of sheep. But the thing I found most interesting on Peninsula Valdés was the view from a rest stop. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Magellanic Penguins

The colorful features of monochrome birds

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From the archives…

Introduction to Patagonia

The great southern frontier

On December 25, 2004, my wife, Morgen, turned 30. She had decided many months earlier that she wanted to celebrate this milestone by taking a grand trip that would be, in a sense, a sort of pilgrimage. No one has to twist my arm to talk me into going on vacation, especially if it’s to some exotic, faraway place. But I told Morgen that the decision where to go should be hers alone: my only input in the process would be smiling and nodding. “You tell me where you want to go,” I said, “and I’ll be there.” For a while she was thinking seriously about going to Spain and doing the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Then she started talking about Rome. After that, it was Australia, and for many weeks I thought she was leaning strongly in that direction. Then one day last summer she announced that she’d reached a final, irrevocable decision. “Where are we going?” I asked. She replied, matter-of-factly, “Patagonia.” I smiled and nodded and said, “Great!” And then I thought for a moment and added, “Where’s Patagonia?”

Since then, virtually every time I’ve told friends or family about our two-week trip, they’ve had the same reaction. “Patagonia? Oh yeah, the clothing brand. You mean it’s an actual place too? Where is it?” Had I myself not been entirely ignorant about Patagonia just a few months ago, I would be incredulous that such a huge place—and one so full of stories—could be unknown to so many otherwise intelligent, educated North Americans and Europeans. Patagonia is in fact chock-full of interesting things—people, animals, plants, customs, natural wonders, and amazing stories—and now that I’ve had a small taste of it in person, I’m going to do my part to share that information with the rest of the world. Each of the articles on Interesting Thing of the Day this week, and again during a second week next month, will have something to do with Patagonia. Accordingly, I thought we should begin with a little primer on Patagonia: its whereabouts, its history, and most importantly, some of its best-known legends. We’ll revisit some of these items, and many others, in more detail as the series progresses. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Megaplumes

The amazing underwater cyclones

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From the archives…

The Battle of Dunkirk

Triumph of His Majesty’s Bathtub Navy

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From the archives…

Tsunami Warning Systems

Looking for the next big wave

At the end of December 2004, I was among the millions watching the endless hours of TV coverage of the Indian Ocean tsunami. As I watched the huge death toll rise by the hour, I remember thinking, naïvely, “How could so many people not have known what was coming?” After a bit of reflection, I had a worse thought: “How could they possibly have known?”

Living in the U.S., I’ve become accustomed to having instant information about everything. When something newsworthy occurs anywhere in the country, television crews materialize out of nowhere and broadcast the story to a nation of information junkies. And if the TV or radio isn’t on, I’m never far from a cell phone or a Web browser. If I think I feel an earthquake—not an uncommon occurrence here in San Francisco—I can check a Web site that tells me its strength and epicenter within minutes. The notion that something cataclysmic could be occurring without my knowledge, whether in my neighborhood or across the continent, is almost unfathomable. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Palacio Barolo

The divine office building

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From the archives…

The Thinker

The story behind Rodin’s famous sculpture

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From the archives…

Paris Sewers

Exploring the dark underbelly of the City of Light

Ah, Paris. It’s one of my very favorite places, not least because its ITSKI (Interesting Things per Square Kilometer Index) is off the scale. There are, of course, the very touristy sights like the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, and Notre Dame, as well as thousands of cafés, shops, and bakeries that tantalize and inspire. There are also a great many lesser-known places of historical interest, including one where I spent an afternoon on each of my past two visits to the city: the sewer system. OK, the aroma wasn’t quite as pleasing as that of a fresh baguette, but the Paris sewer system—part of which has been turned into a museum that’s open to the public—is vast, intricate, and surprising in many ways. You may think of a sewer as nothing more than a conduit for waste, but in Paris, there’s more to the sewers than meets the nose.

The tunnels that make up the Paris sewer system are mostly very large—almost the size of a subway tunnel. In most cases a central channel, wide enough and deep enough for a boat, carries waste and runoff water; on both sides are broad, paved walkways with enough headroom for most people to walk comfortably. Overhead are pipes that supply the city’s fresh water, telecommunications cables, and pneumatic tubes, among other things. But it’s the length and complexity of the tunnels that make them so intriguing: they almost exactly follow the layout of the streets above—in fact, every corner within the sewers has a street sign on it that mirrors the one on the surface. Where a wide boulevard runs on the surface, a wide sewer tunnel (or two) runs beneath; smaller streets have smaller sewers, and even side streets and alleys are duplicated underground. In all, there are about 1,300 miles (2,100km) of sewer tunnels underneath Paris. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Sutro Baths

Diving into the past

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

At the intersection of the Boulevard St. Michel and the Boulevard St. Germain, in the heart of Paris’s Latin Quarter, a ruin of brick and stone walls, vaguely recognizable as rooms or chambers, is being unearthed. This spot was once the site of Roman public baths, a place of leisure for local residents in the first to third century A.D. These baths were destroyed in the third century, and the property was later bought in 1330 by the Abbot of Cluny, who built a new structure alongside the ruins. During the French Revolution, the property passed out of the church’s hands, and had various owners (one of whom covered the bath ruins in six feet of soil) before being bought by Alexandre du Sommerard, a collector of medieval antiquities. Today, both of these sites are part of the Musée National du Moyen Age, a museum dedicated to the arts and history of the Middle Ages.

Besides the relative novelty of visiting ancient (and surprisingly intact) Roman ruins below the streets of a 21st-century city, the baths give a fascinating insight into Roman culture. These baths consisted of a series of pools: the tepidarium (lukewarm), caldarium (hot), and frigidarium (cold). Guests normally moved from the lukewarm pool to the hot pool, then to the cold before retiring to rooms designed for socializing with other guests. Roman baths of this type were open to everyone, and were an important part of life in ancient Roman towns. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Printing Skin Tissue

Human organs from 3-D printers

An earlier article here covered 3-D printers, which use modified inkjet technology to create solid objects with extremely complex shapes. The printers use a variety of techniques to solidify arbitrary areas on the surface of a powdered substrate, which supports the object as it is built up layer by layer. Designers commonly use 3-D printers for prototyping things like consumer electronic products, ensuring that they will be manufacturable before expensive metal molds are created to enable mass production. I ran into an old acquaintance the day that article ran who had never heard of Interesting Thing of the Day, so I told him about the site. He asked me what that day’s topic was, and I happily described the 3-D printers. He said, “Oh yeah, I know about those. Did you know they’re also using them to ‘print’ human tissue?” Um…no, I had no idea. It turns out that the humble inkjet printer has quite a few tricks up its sleeve—including, incredibly, the capability of manufacturing living skin and other organs.

Cell Mates
Growing individual human cells is not especially difficult. Take a sample of healthy cells, provide them with the right nutrients and environment, and they will grow and multiply. When multiple tissue cells are placed in close proximity to each other, they have a tendency to fuse together. Because of this phenomenon, hospitals can “grow” new skin to be used as grafts for burn patients using the patient’s own skin cells. However, this technique does have significant limitations. In particular, the skin cannot be made very thick because there’s no way to get blood to deeper cells—the process grows a homogeneous sheet of skin without the essential network of blood vessels, not to mention pores and other minute structures. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Skin Project

Short story as body art

Here in San Francisco, if you want to appear inconspicuous in public, the best way to do so is to wear leather, dye your hair in fluorescent colors, and have all your visible skin tattooed, pierced, or both. I exaggerate, of course—but let’s just say that body art is big in this town. Personally, I don’t find the notion of permanently altering my appearance appealing. My tastes in clothing, hair styles, and so on change over time, so I don’t want to lock myself into a look I might feel less enthusiastic about in a few years. There’s also the whole issue of pain, which, all things being equal, I prefer to avoid. If I ever were to have a tattoo, though, it would have to be both discreet and very meaningful—something more than mere decoration.

One artist is using tattoos on human skin as a medium for literature rather than images, and in an extremely unconventional manner at that. New York author Shelley Jackson has written a 2,095-word story titled “Skin,” which she refers to as a “mortal piece of art.” By the time the project is finished, each word of the story will have been tattooed on a different person’s body; over 1,700 of the tattoos had been completed by late 2004, using participants from around the world. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Tagmemics

The linguistic theory of everything

When I was studying linguistics in graduate school, the question people asked me most often was, “So how many languages can you speak?” I’d roll my eyes and say, “One, almost.” I’d then try to explain that I usually get by pretty well in English, that I can order food in a French restaurant without embarrassing myself, and that I’ve picked up a smattering of phrases in half a dozen other languages—but that’s pretty much it (unless you want to count computer languages or ancient Greek and Hebrew, of which I know just enough to mistranslate an inscription here and there). Linguists, I would say, are not necessarily polyglots; the study of linguistics is not about learning a bunch of languages but rather about understanding the nature of language generally: how the brain creates and interprets it, how children learn it, how it functions in society, how to model it computationally, that sort of thing. (At this point listeners would generally nod, try valiantly to suppress a yawn, and change the subject.)

In the course of my studies, I came across a fringe linguistic theory that is, even by the most generous standards, far from being generally accepted, or even respected. The theory is known as tagmemics; its inventor and primary proponent, the late Dr. Kenneth L. Pike, was on my thesis committee. So I got to spend some quality time getting to know the man and his theory—which, though I argued forcefully against its shortcomings, is nevertheless quite interesting. It’s the one linguistic theory that ordinary, nonacademic human beings have a reasonable chance of comprehending without months of study. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Name Tags

Hello, my name is Joe

One day last year I received a package in the mail from a company I’d never heard of. Inside was a black T-shirt with the words “Joe’s Shirt” in huge, bold white letters. There could be no doubt that it was for me, but I certainly didn’t order it. I looked on the packing slip and found the name of the person who ordered it—an acquaintance of mine who would not ordinarily buy me clothing. I tried to remember if there might perhaps be some favor he was repaying or an inside joke we had shared, but I drew a blank. I sent him a note that said, “Thanks for the lovely theft-proof shirt, but…what’s the occasion?” He replied, “I saw it in a catalog and died laughing. I decided that you simply MUST own one.” That’s good enough for me.

As it happens, I’m a fan of name tags from way back. I usually try to have tags around when I throw a party, and Morgen and I even passed them out to guests at our wedding. Some people don’t understand why they should use them, and others decide to write in a nickname, alias, or silly comment. But to me, name tags seem like a simple and straightforward solution to the very common problem of forgetting—or being unable to determine—someone else’s name. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Geocaching

Adventures with GPS and hiking boots

I have lived for many years what some consider a very inconsistently geeky life. In some respects, my life seems to revolve around computers and other gadgets. I have a lot of cutting-edge hardware, and I’m not just talking about my Henckels knives. Yet I have never owned a camcorder; my digital still camera is years out of date; my first-generation iPod holds a mere 5 gigabytes of music; and my only PDA, an ancient PalmPilot (from the days when they were still called that) has been gathering dust for years. Why haven’t I acquired the latest and greatest items? It’s certainly not because I don’t want them! On the one hand, what I already have serves my needs adequately (if not perfectly); and on the other hand, it perpetually seems that the ideal combination of features and price for any given gadget is just around the corner—that if I make a purchase now I’ll regret it within a few months. Unfortunately, my tech budget is too limited to permit me to indulge in new toys unless they perform crucial tasks and can be expected to last a few years.

For the same reasons, I have not yet jumped on the GPS bandwagon. GPS, the Global Positioning System, is a network of satellites that enables anyone with the necessary receiver to determine, within a few meters or so, his or her exact latitude and longitude anywhere on the planet. GPS receivers are used in navigation systems for cars, boats, and planes, among many other applications, and are becoming increasingly popular as an accessory for hikers and back-country explorers. Once a toy for the excessively rich, a respectable GPS receiver can now be had for well under US$100, and you can even buy a watch (albeit a rather chunky one) with a GPS receiver built in. It is unmistakably cool to have a Tricorder-like gizmo in your pocket that will tell you exactly where you are, maybe even showing you a full-color map on its display. But cool, feature-packed, and affordable aren’t enough for me: I have to have a reason to buy a gadget, an actual need to fill. To date, getting lost in the wilderness (or anywhere else) has not been a serious worry for me. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Tag Questions

You know what this is about, don’t you?

People who want to make fun of the Canadian dialect of English invariably start with one of its two most idiosyncratic features. The pronunciation of the diphthong “ou,” of course, is one of them—in words like out and about, Americans exaggerate both the gliding and rounding of the vowels so that it sounds like the “ow” in power, whereas the stereotypical Canadian pronunciation is closer to oat and a boat. I know lots of Canadians who protest this characterization, pointing out that Americans butcher the language much more egregiously. They may say, “Every dialect of English has its faults, eh?” This is the second oft-ridiculed peculiarity of Canadian English: turning a statement into a question by adding the word “eh” at the end, which means, approximately, “Isn’t that so?”

Needless to say, not all Canadians fit the stereotype—my wife, for example, rarely uses “eh,” just as I avoid most of the influences of Pittsburghese. Some of her family members from Saskatchewan, on the other hand, say “hey” instead of “eh,” and there are many other regional variations of English within Canada, just as there are within other English-speaking countries. But whether or not one uses “eh” (or “hey”), every English speaker knows dozens of ways to add a word or a phrase to the end of a statement so that it becomes a yes/no question. Questions formed in this way are called tag questions. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Online Lost-and-Found Services

A better way to get your stuff back

While I was shopping at a travel store, a piece of luggage caught my eye—but not because of its modern styling, heavy-duty ballistic nylon fabric, or retractable handle and wheels. What attracted my attention was a small tag with the words “RETURN FOR REWARD,” along with a toll-free phone number, a URL, and a serial number. This tag was supplied by a service called BoomerangIt, one of several internet-based lost-and-found services that provide a new spin on an old concept.

If you go to a coffee shop and leave your glasses, keys, or notebook on the table, chances are some honest citizen will turn them in at the counter, and as long as you know where you left the article, you can return later to claim it. Larger stores, stadiums, concert halls, theme parks and so on typically have central lost-and-found departments that serve the same purpose. But again, you must have at least a general idea of where an item was lost, and you can only hope that whoever found it didn’t decide just to keep it. (Lost-and-found departments are not very likely to have your lost camera, laptop computer, or wallet—at least not with the money still in it.) Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a general, all-purpose lost-and-found service that didn’t require you to know where your valuables went missing? And wouldn’t it be nice if there were an incentive for the finder to return your lost item rather than just pocketing it? These are precisely the ideas behind several online services. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Tunnels of Moose Jaw

Underground legends

The first couple of times I visited Saskatchewan, where my wife’s family lives, it was winter. Temperatures hovered around –40°, making holiday shopping along the streets of downtown Saskatoon a challenge. Even bundled to the gills, we could barely stand to be outside for more than a few minutes. Morgen assured me that during the summer (or “mosquito season,” as it is affectionately known), the prairies of southern Saskatchewan took on an entirely different look and were quite hospitable to humans. But I was thinking, this is why they invented malls. Malls are good. Let’s go to the mall! We went to the mall.

Moosey in the Sky with Diamonds
I like to kid my wife about Saskatchewan: the monotonous flatness of the landscape, the dearth of trees, the nasty winter weather, the fact that the province’s slogan, “Land of Living Skies,” suggests there’s not much interesting about the land itself. Morgen, in turn, can kid me about western Pennsylvania (where I grew up), which has its own peculiarities. But even though Pennsylvania has no shortage of oddly named towns, Saskatchewan’s legendary town of Moose Jaw takes the cake. Although everyone in Canada has heard of Moose Jaw, it’s known more for its silly name than for any other characteristic. Which is a shame, because if you dig a little bit, you can find all sorts of interesting things in Moose Jaw. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Straw Bale Houses

The power of banding together

Several years ago, the company I worked for had a big Halloween celebration. One of my coworkers decided that a group of us needed to dress up as the Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf. So she worked for days sewing costumes for all of us, and even brought in plastic pig noses for us to wear. For an authentic touch, she asked that we also decorate our desks with the building materials featured in the story. I got the short straw (so to speak) and ended up making a pathetic mess by scattering straw all around my desk, and the “pig” who used sticks didn’t fare much better. But our colleague with the brick “house” simply printed out a huge brick pattern on a large-format color printer and wrapped it around his desk. In life as in the story, his design was clearly the best.

It is difficult to set aside the bias that straw is an inappropriate building material, even knowing that wolves lack the lung capacity to blow down a straw house. And yet people have been building sturdy, comfortable houses out of straw bales for more than a century. This building technique has been, shall we say, a bit slow to catch on—and is not without its limitations. But using straw as a building material turns out to have some interesting merits. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Esperanto

Artificial language for the masses

Like many people, I endured four years of high-school French only to find that I lacked the ability to order a croissant in a Paris bakery without making a fool of myself. I eventually got the hang of basic conversation in French, but then found myself traveling to places where Spanish, German, or Italian (for example) were spoken, and having to start all over again with the basics (“Where’s the bathroom?” “How much does this cost?” “Where have you sent my luggage?”). As much as I enjoy and appreciate linguistic diversity, it can make travel, trade, and diplomacy challenging at times.

In some heavily multilingual areas of the world, most people learn a lingua franca—a regional trade language—in addition to their mother tongue. It stands to reason, then, that this notion could be expanded more broadly. But when someone proposes English or French, say, as a trade language, objections inevitably arise. These languages are notoriously difficult to learn, with strange spellings and lots of grammatical rules and exceptions. But more importantly, they’re loaded with historical and cultural baggage. If your country—not mentioning any names—has been a rival of English- or French-speaking nations, you will likely not jump at the chance to spend long years learning a language with such unpleasant associations. The only hope for a truly universal language would seem to be an artificial one—a language that is designed to be free from cultural biases and easy to learn. This was precisely the goal of Esperanto. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Geodesic Domes

Building outside the box

Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past half century, you have probably encountered a geodesic dome at one time or another. They can be found on playgrounds, at amusement parks, and in museums; and any number of homes and public buildings are constructed using some variation of this structure. Depending on your tastes and disposition, you may think geodesic domes look cool, endearingly retro, or woefully unfashionable. But you may not know the story (and the logic) behind this sometimes-controversial design.

Bucky-ing Trends
R. Buckminster Fuller was one of the most prolific thinkers and inventors of the 20th century. He wrote numerous books, received dozens of patents, and worked tirelessly for decades to solve some of the world’s most vexing problems using the tools of engineering and common sense. For all his innovations, Fuller was a very practical man, and like most engineers he saw a great beauty in elegantly logical solutions—even if they defied tradition, aesthetics, or conventional wisdom. So when a housing crisis arose in the years following World War II, he set out to find the simplest and most effective solution, no matter how unusual it may be. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Performative Verbs

Doing as you say

In a sociolinguistics class years ago, each of the students had to complete a major project on the topic of their choice, and the professor met with each of us to discuss what sorts of things we were thinking of researching. I described some areas of interest, and my professor said, “You should read J.L. Austin’s How to Do Things with Words. I think it’s exactly the kind of thing you’re talking about.” I read the book, and although it was not at all relevant to the project I had in mind, it was quite interesting. The entire book was a treatise on performative verbs, which is to say, verbs whose action is accomplished merely by saying them.

I Speak, Therefore I Act
Performatives sound a bit mystical at first, like a spell or incantation. But in fact such verbs are quite commonplace. If you’ve ever said, “I promise” or “I apologize,” you have performed those actions by the simple act of saying them. You’re not talking about doing these things or stating that you’re doing them; you’re actually doing them. The same is true when you say, “I bet,” “I invite,” “I request,” or “I protest,” for example. There are countless other examples, such as: [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Ice Hotels

In-refrigerator rooms

When I first heard about an “ice hotel,” I thought it must be a joke. I’ve heard of igloos, of course, but that’s not really the image that comes to mind when I think hotel. Sure, there was the Bad Guy’s ice lair in the James Bond film “Die Another Day,” but that’s just fantasy, right? The thought that someone might really construct an entire hotel out of ice, rent rooms, and then repeat the process each year was almost too wacky to believe. Believe it—not only does it happen, it has now become the trendiest way to spend a winter vacation.

They’ve Got It Down Cold
The first ice hotel was built in 1989 in a village called Jukkasjärvi in northern Lapland, Sweden. That first year it was a modest, 60-square-meter igloo; this year, the structure measures over 4,000 square meters and has 85 rooms. Construction begins each year in October, and the hotel is open for guests from December through April (weather permitting). By summer the hotel has melted, but plans are already underway for next year’s bigger, better ice structure. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Spoonerisms

Sixing up mounds

One of my linguistics professors in grad school had a strange sense of humor that appealed to me greatly. He didn’t see a need to divide work and pleasure; exams regularly contained jokes, puns, and strange juxtapositions, and every class session was filled with laughter. When this professor needed to make up a word in an imaginary language to use as an example, he wouldn’t give it a common meaning like “mother” or “tree”; he’d instead gloss the word as “flagpole sitter,” “hubcap thief,” or something similarly odd. He constantly urged us not to take our homework too seriously and to ask annoying questions of the other professors. I think this lighthearted attitude helped us all to learn better, and it certainly brightened the classroom atmosphere.

How Near This
Class discussion had a remarkable tendency to stray from the planned lesson, though invariably it went in interesting (and linguistically useful) directions. One day, someone in the class mentioned the word metathesis, which is the phenomenon that occurs when two adjacent sounds are swapped (as in “aks” for “ask”). Without missing a beat, the professor said, “Oh yes, this reminds me of spoonerisms,” and proceeded to recite, rapidly and perfectly, the tale of the Mion and the Louse. We were stunned and delighted by his brilliant display of linguistic prowess. It’s not easy to make mistakes like that on purpose. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Origin of the Trophy Cup

Handing it to the winner

Having written several articles based on the theme “Throwing Down the Goblet,” I found myself wondering about trophies. Lots of major sporting competitions award the winning team a trophy in the shape of a cup (or, if you prefer, a bowl, chalice, or goblet)—the Stanley Cup, the America’s Cup, the World Cup, and so on. Trophy cups are also found quite often in collegiate sports, and Harry Potter fans will of course remember the House Cup as the highly coveted award for the house that has accumulated the most points during a given term. Often, though not always, tradition dictates that a single trophy cup be passed from one winning team to the next. In individual competitions, by contrast, trophy cups are much less common; designs are based more often on a human (or angelic) figure of some kind.

The Salad Fork of Victory
When you’re rooting for your team to win, say, the World Cup, it’s probably not especially important to you what the actual token of victory is shaped like. The important thing, most competitors and fans would agree, is simply to win—and to have some commemorative token. A cube or sphere or an inscribed toaster oven could just as easily serve this purpose, though without a doubt, larger, more elaborate, and costlier trophies give the winner something further to brag about. All I wanted to know was, why a cup? How did a cup, of all things, come to symbolize competitive victory? [Article Continues…]

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