From the archives…

Orgone

The strange theories of Wilhelm Reich

Back when I wrote about the Sedona energy vortexes, a friend of mine said I should look into something called “orgone”—apparently some sort of healing energy discovered by a certain Dr. Wilhelm Reich. I spent a couple of hours reading the Web sites my friend recommended, by the end of which time I was completely baffled. I had read things about alien encounters, inscrutable contraptions that were supposed to impart various vague health benefits, and other claims so bizarre that I simply couldn’t make any sense of them. The material was so opaque and confusing that I couldn’t even produce a coherent definition of orgone, much less write an article on the subject. Many months later, after my article on the Egely Wheel, the same friend again suggested I write about orgone, so I once again spent some time on the Web, trying to make heads or tails of it. Again, I failed. Then, one day recently, I happened to notice that Cecil Adams wrote about Reich and his theories several years ago in “The Straight Dope.” The quote that caught my eye was: “Reich was a nut.” At last, a clear and concise statement I could comprehend. Perhaps there was hope after all—I just needed to look in the right places.

Now, of course, I’ve biased you already: you’re going to think that what I’m about to describe is pure hogwash. And frankly, I think you’ll be right. As much as I try to maintain an open mind—and a charitable attitude toward those with beliefs much different from my own—I have my limits. But the story of orgone, despite its dubious claims, is nevertheless quite interesting. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Jumping Spiders

The lovable, multi-talented octopedes

A reader wrote in with a comment about one of my articles on the fauna of Costa Rica, wondering if I’d ever written anything about jumping spiders. I didn’t see any jumping spiders (that I know of) in Costa Rica. (Though I did see one in Spider-Man. Does that count?) So I added “jumping spiders” to my list of topics to research. There were, unsurprisingly, tens of thousands of Web pages to be found about the 5,000 or so species of spiders in the family Salticidae (or Salticids), commonly known as “jumping spiders.” I was sure there must be numerous interesting tidbits of information to extract, but what I found was not at all what I was expecting.

On page after page, I kept reading descriptions of jumping spiders like these: “personalities of the spider world” … “friendly little creatures that always like to jump on your camera or your fingers” … “affectionately referred to as Charlies, Herbies or Salties” … “among the most beautiful and delightful of all arthropods” … “comical, engaging” … “their anthropomorphic nature endears them to most people.” OK, wait a minute—we are talking about spiders here, right? Spiders have always been on my “avoid if at all possible” list. Even looking at pictures of them gives me the creeps. Am I really supposed to feel especially fond of a spider that could jump on me? But clearly, something about these spiders (apart from the obvious fact that they jump) has caught the fancy of a great many people—or at least, a great many spider fans. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Kitty Genovese Syndrome

The problem of the guilty bystander

In March, 1964, a New York City woman named Catherine “Kitty” Genovese was raped and stabbed to death as she returned home from work late at night. According to a newspaper report published shortly thereafter, 38 people had witnessed some or all of the attack, which took place in two or three distinct episodes over a period of about a half hour—and yet no one did anything to stop it; no one even reported it to the police until the woman was already dead. Although the murder itself was tragic, the nation was even more outraged that so many people who could have helped seemingly displayed callous indifference. And so the failure of bystanders to intervene became known as “Kitty Genovese Syndrome”—or, sometimes, just “Genovese Syndrome” or “Genovese Effect.” Social psychologists sometimes call it the “bystander effect.”

Later analysis of the Genovese case would show that the media misrepresented the facts somewhat. It’s not as though 38 people stood calmly watching a brutal murder in broad daylight and simply went on about their business. This attack happened in the middle of the night when it was dark, most people were in bed, and no one had a clear view of the entire event. Some of the witnesses, for example, had merely heard yelling and thought it might have been nothing more than an argument. At least one person apparently did call the police immediately, but without realizing that the woman had actually been stabbed—so the police didn’t respond with any urgency. And perhaps, even if an ambulance had arrived 5 minutes after the initial attack, Kitty Genovese would still have died. So it’s plausible, at least, that this particular case was not an example of apathetic bystanders—and that Kitty Genovese Syndrome is a bit of a misnomer. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Plate Clouds

Alien spacecraft hidden in plain sight?

Guest Article by Bill Bain

A couple of summers ago, I was driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles along California’s Interstate 5. I’d left the Bay Area mid-morning, and after five and a half hours of driving on the long, straight highway through the great central valley, I was approaching the modest range of mountains that separates that valley from southern California. I was happy to be within an hour’s drive of my destination so early in the afternoon, and had already started to plan the hours of evening I had gained by leaving early and not stopping to eat. It wasn’t going to go the way I was planning, though.

I got stopped by a cloud.

Within an hour’s drive of the mountains, I started noticing that something was—well, it looked like something was balanced on top of the nearest mountain. As I got closer it started becoming obvious that a giant spacecraft was poised over the mountain, maybe even tethered to it like an airship to a mooring post. It was colored as you’d expect a cloud formation to be, but had sharp, clean edges, and a precise layered structure. More ominously, I could see that as time passed, and my view of the mountain stayed more or less the same, the nearby clouds were moving but the “thing” wasn’t. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Weather Station Kurt

Nazi weather forecasts from Canada

My “geek” gene has manifested itself in many different ways over the years—I’ve gone through phases of obsessions with gadgets of many kinds. My latest interest is cooking gadgets, but before that it was computers; before that, synthesizers; and still earlier, photographic equipment—going all the way back to Erector Sets. And somewhere along the way, in my early teens or so, I had a brief flirtation with meteorological equipment. I received a home weather station kit as a gift one year and set about building my own barometer, sling hygrometer, anemometer, and weather vane. The latter two devices, once assembled, had to be mounted on the roof and wired up to an indoor readout to display wind speed and direction, but for some reason that never happened. Since those were also the geekiest of the gadgets, my inability to use them quickly shut down my interest in the whole subject. The equipment I’d built lay unused in a closet for years before I finally threw it out.

Around that same time (this would have been the early 1980s), a similar collection of equipment was found in a secluded location on the east coast of Canada. It, too, had been abandoned for years. But in this case, it had been built and installed secretly by the German military nearly 40 years earlier as part of an elaborate remote weather-forecasting system in the North Atlantic. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Magnetohydrodynamic Propulsion

Motors without moving parts

In the 1990 film The Hunt for Red October (based on the Tom Clancy novel of the same name), Sean Connery plays the captain of a Russian submarine. This much I remembered from having seen the film many years ago. I did not recall that the submarine in question—the eponymous “Red October”—used a special high-tech propulsion system that, having no moving parts, was silent. I’m sure my science fiction filter was on, and I just assumed at the time that the top-secret engine was the sort of almost-plausible futuristic contrivance any modern spy movie will have—and not worth taking very seriously. Just a few years later, though, Mitsubishi demonstrated a boat using a propulsion system of roughly the design Clancy described in his novel. And now variations on this technique are being used in electrical generators, nuclear reactors, and even spacecraft design.

Gimme an “M”
The scientific principle in question is known as magnetohydrodynamics, which is a fairly straightforward combination of magneto (as in magnet), hydro (as in water), and dynamics (as in motion). Those in the biz call it MHD for short. And yes: it uses magnetism to cause motion in water (or another fluid). MHD is not by any means a new discovery—academic researchers have been working on this since at least the 1960s, and the Journal Magnetohydrodynamics has been published since 1965 by the University of Latvia. But in recent years, MHD designs have begun to appear more frequently in everything from large-scale commercial operations to high school science fair projects. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Disappearing Island Nations

Sinking feelings and global warming

It seems that every time I turn on the TV or open a newspaper or magazine, I see another story about global warming. It’s not only the big environmental issue of the day, it’s one of the big issues, period. Maybe it doesn’t feel quite so frightening or quite so urgent as terrorism or outbreaks of deadly diseases, but certainly it’s right up there. The condensed version of this story—the one that has most thoroughly worked its way into the public consciousness—says that global temperatures have risen much more rapidly during the industrial age than they did before; that they will continue to rise; that worldwide emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide are largely to blame for this situation; and that the resulting changes in weather, climate, sea level, and so forth will—sooner or later—be utterly devastating in one or more of several ways. Meanwhile, the United States, which is responsible for some outrageous percentage of the world’s greenhouse gases, is apparently disinclined to reduce those levels, on the grounds that hypothetical long-term problems are outweighed by actual short-term problems such as the extreme inconvenience and cost of reducing emissions.

Burning Rage
Naturally, I’m incensed at all this, especially when I read stories about the apparently imminent disappearance of several entire island nations due to the rising sea levels that are, in turn, a result of global warming. And, assuming that global warming is in fact caused by greenhouse gases (as most people do), it is astonishing that people continue driving gas-guzzling SUVs and smoking cigarettes and, you know, generally showing contempt for the future inhabitants of the planet as a whole and those island nations in particular. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Coriolis Force

Taking an urban legend for a spin

I just finished an experiment in which I demonstrated something many people would claim is impossible. I filled the kitchen sink and the bathroom sink with water, and then I pulled the plugs. The water in the bathroom sink drained clockwise, while the water in the kitchen sink drained counterclockwise. According to a popular urban myth that has been circulating (sorry) for eons, water always drains in one direction in the northern hemisphere and in the opposite direction in the southern hemisphere. (Accounts differ as to which is which, but we’ll get to that shortly.) If true, one of my sinks has just defied the laws of nature. Since it is seemingly very easy to disprove this myth, its persistence for all these years suggests an unfortunate lack of intellectual rigor among the general public. However, it turns out that there is a kernel of truth to this story after all—in, shall we say, a roundabout way.

The Effects of Force
The reason usually given for the supposed variation in the rotational direction of drainage is the Coriolis force—a type of inertial force that affects moving objects in a rotating system, causing them to curve in one direction or another. (This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as the Coriolis effect—though strictly speaking, a Coriolis effect is simply any perceived change resulting from the Coriolis force; I’ll stick with the latter term in the interest of simplicity.) A thought experiment might illustrate this concept well. Let’s say you and a friend are playing catch, and there just happens to be a merry-go-round between you. You can throw the ball straight ahead, and it will go just where you expect it to. However, if you and your friend hop onto opposite sides of the merry-go-round and try to play catch while it’s in motion, you’ll find that the ball you throw straight ahead curves to the side (which side and how far depend on the direction and speed of the merry-go-round). That’s the Coriolis force at work. It was named after French scientist Gaspard-Gustave Coriolis, who demonstrated it in 1835. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Oak Island Mystery

Nova Scotia’s notorious money pit

Canada’s maritime provinces may not be the first place you think of when you hear the words “buried treasure,” but for over 200 years, treasure hunters have had their eyes on tiny Oak Island in Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia. Over the years, millions of dollars have been spent—and at least six lives lost—in repeated attempts to excavate one of the world’s most infamous alleged treasure sites. What could be worth so much effort? Possibly an enormous cache of gold and silver, ancient manuscripts, or…nothing at all.

Can You Dig It?
The story begins in 1795, when a boy was wandering around on the island and found a curious depression in the ground. Right above this depression was an old tackle block hanging from the limb of a large oak tree, as though someone had used it to lower something heavy into a hole. Having heard stories about pirates frequenting the area in centuries past, the boy immediately suspected buried treasure. He returned the following day with two friends and began digging. A few feet down, the boys found a layer of flagstones; 10 feet below that was a wooden platform. Both of these markers strongly suggested the hole was man-made. They kept going, but by the time they reached 30 feet, they realized there was no end in sight and called it quits. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Freediving

Taking the oxygen-free plunge

Lifeguards at public swimming pools don’t like it when you disregard the signs that say “Walk, Don’t Run!” But they like it even less when you don’t move at all. As a lifeguard is scanning the pool, the last thing he or she wants to see is a body floating face-down and motionless in the water. I remember getting yelled at for doing exactly that when I was about 10 or 12 years old. I couldn’t understand what the problem was. I wasn’t bothering anyone, I was just enjoying the sensation of holding my breath, floating, and staring at the bottom of the pool. But the lifeguard reprimanded me: “You have to keep moving. Otherwise I won’t know if you have drowned.” I thought that was unfair, because kicking around in the water isn’t as relaxing or serene as just floating there, but ever since then, as a courtesy to those who could not discern my state of consciousness from a distance, I have refrained from floating face-down.

Little did I realize that what I was doing would soon be a major competitive sport.

Kicking the Breathing Habit
Serious breath-holders would call what I was doing Static Apnea—just one of several categories of the sport of freediving. The current world record for Static Apnea is held by Czech diver Martin Stepanek, who floated in a swimming pool while holding his breath for eight minutes and six seconds. That is, if I may say so (and pardon the pun), an unfathomably long time. But it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Freediving is all about pushing the limits of physical and mental endurance, defying common sense all the way. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Sinking City of Venice

Atlantis redux

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From the archives…

Underwater Hockey

A breathtakingly unusual sport

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From the archives…

Becoming a Saint

The curious process of canonization

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From the archives…

Stewart/Gaskin

Serious pop from the other Dave Stewart

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Thursday, March 17, 2005

St. Patrick

The man and the myths

Many years ago, I read the following provocative statement in a trivia book: “St. Patrick was neither Irish nor Catholic.” Although, as in most trivia books, these claims came with no historical references to back them up, they sounded plausible. I had no particular reason not to believe the book, and I tucked these tidbits away in my brain’s “interesting facts to investigate one of these days” file. I’ve been digging into that file a lot lately, and this seemed to be an appropriate time to get to the bottom of who St. Patrick really was—and which of the numerous and contradictory stories about him have some basis in truth.

Not being Catholic myself, I never learned even the very basic facts (or legends) about most of the saints—information that, I recognize, is common knowledge to a large segment of the population. On St. Patrick’s Day, all I ever managed to deduce was that we were all wearing green because that had something to do with Ireland; any information about the historical St. Patrick was not part of my secular experience of the holiday. I didn’t even know that he was supposed to have expelled all the snakes from Ireland—after all, I’d never seen a snake on a St. Patrick’s Day card. As I read up on St. Patrick, Guinness in hand, I discovered that one of the most interesting things about this man is how little one can know for certain. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Mouth Music

Music without instruments

Guest Article by Jackie Chappell

When I was young, my Dad had a record featuring songs and comedy sketches by the comedian Peter Sellers (formerly of “The Goon Show”). I loved to listen to it so much that even today, I can recite nearly the entire album from memory. One sketch in particular sprung to mind when I sat down to write this article. Sellers plays a German folk music aficionado, who is rather stiffly introducing his field recordings. “Ziss recordink is of Scottish mouth music.” He pauses. “Played on ze mouth.” Actually, what followed wasn’t mouth music at all, but a drunk Scotsman singing on a street before getting run over by a bus, but it was the first time I had ever heard the term. I didn’t hear real mouth music—or puirt-a-beul in Gaelic—until many years later.

Isn’t That Just Singing?
Surely music “played on the mouth” is just what most people refer to as singing? Well, yes and no. Genuine puirt-a-beul (pronounced porsht-ah-buhl) has a number of distinctive features which mark it out from standard singing. Mouth music is a primarily rhythmic form of song, where the words are chosen for their rhythmic qualities and the patterns of sound they make. Consequently most of the lyrics are more or less nonsense, but sometimes they take the form of puns or tongue twisters. Some songs contain syllables called “vocables,” which are chosen to sound like a particular instrument, or as a kind of sound effect to fit in with the meaning of the song. One of the reasons that I love mouth music is that it is a truly representative form of folk song; even the poorest of people can afford to use their own voices, so the songs record the everyday lives of ordinary people. The music itself is really striking to listen to, with a driving, toe-tapping rhythm. Expert mouth music singers will tell you that the hardest thing to learn is when to breathe, because the rhythm can’t be broken. Listening to Talitha MacKenzie singing “Sheatadh Cailleach” on the album “Sòlas,” and reading along with the Gaelic lyrics, I always marvel at how she can possibly fit all of the words in, such is the speed and complexity of the song. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Père-Lachaise Cemetery

Final resting place of Paris’s rich and famous

Those who follow Interesting Thing of the Day closely will by now have noticed more than a passing tendency for topics to involve decay, France, or—when possible—both at the same time. Undoubtedly some very troubling explanations could be advanced for this phenomenon, but in fact there is no sinister plot afoot, as far as I know. The old is often more interesting than the new, and as for France, well, it happens to have quite a lot of old things—as well as some truly excellent food and drink to enjoy before and after looking at them. It’s a natural destination for seekers of interesting things. On each of our trips to France, we made a point of visiting one of the most famous, interesting, and quiet attractions in Paris: Père-Lachaise Cemetery.

Père-Lachaise owes its celebrity primarily to the large number of writers, musicians, politicians, and other famous people buried there. Among the cast are Frédéric Chopin, Eugène Delacroix, Marcel Proust, Gertrude Stein, and Oscar Wilde. The cemetery, which is also the largest park in Paris, has more than 70,000 plots. The sheer size, along with its hilly terrain, twisting roads, and thousands of trees, makes navigation a challenge, and most people purchase maps for a few euros before entering the site (which is free to the public). [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Throat Singers

All-natural one-man bands

I’m not normally one to lose sleep over missed opportunities; we all make the best decisions we can and life goes on. But about a decade ago, I made a truly stupid choice and I’ve been kicking myself for it ever since. I was doing graduate work in linguistics at the University of California, San Diego, and a musical group called Huun-Huur-Tu (or the “Tuvan Throat Singers,” for most of us) came to town and put on a concert at the university. I saw the posters, noticed that my classmates excitedly anticipated the concert, and seriously considered going…but for some unfathomable reason, I decided not to. The next day, and for a week or two afterward, that was all anyone could talk about: this amazing, surreal event—and, for linguistics students in particular, the complex vocal mechanics behind it. It had been, apparently, an almost religious experience for those who went. In the years since, I’ve yet to cross paths with the Tuvan Throat Singers again, and when two different people suggested they might qualify as an Interesting Thing, it was with a certain sense of shame and self-pity that I agreed.

Singing Double
What could be so special about a style of singing—don’t all singers use their throats? Not like these folks. The simplest way of explaining what throat singers do is that they can sing two notes at the same time. In fact, not just two notes—some throat singers can produce as many as four distinct tones simultaneously. The effect is truly weird and chilling. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Anabaptism

The third way of Christianity

The history of Christianity is alternately fascinating and tragic—often both at the same time. I have always been amazed that the religion whose founder taught his followers to “turn the other cheek” and “love your enemies” has produced so much war, violence, and intolerance over the centuries. Equally amazing to me are the massive and seemingly irreconcilable differences between different brands of Christianity, and even between individual adherents of any particular brand. This is all the more poignant considering that, according to the New Testament, the one prayer Jesus offered for future generations of believers was “that they may be one”—he hoped that by their own unity, they would demonstrate the unity of God.

Many of the divisions within Christianity arose because someone perceived a problem and, reasonably enough, tried to correct it. More often than not, attempts at reform resulted in still more violence and fragmentation. But a certain oft-neglected thread of church history also stands out as one of the bloodiest, quite ironically because those responsible for the movement were pacifists. The movement was known as Anabaptism, and it survives to this day as a form of Christianity that is neither Catholic nor Protestant—a third way. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Extreme Ironing

Pressing your luck

My fondness for gadgets goes way back—back to those innocent days of my childhood when anything that ran on electricity and had buttons qualified as a gadget. I must have been about five years old when, one Christmas, I asked my parents for an iron. I’d seen one in a toy catalog—but it was a real iron. It had a plug and it got hot and everything (though presumably the temperature was kept low enough that kids wouldn’t burn themselves). And, crucially, it had four buttons. I didn’t know what the buttons did and I didn’t care. But I knew that I wanted and needed four of them. When Christmas arrived, I excitedly tore open my presents, and there, sure enough, was my very own iron. But wait! What’s this? This iron has only three buttons! It’s the wrong iron! It’s all wrong! Christmas is ruined! I yelled and I cried and I tried, with little success, to explain to my parents between sobs that really that fourth button was the crucial ingredient, without which the gift was, sadly, worthless to me. It must have been the following year that I began typing my Christmas lists—complete with catalog numbers, so that there could be no mistakes.

As an adult—no doubt due to this traumatic experience—I’ve never been much for ironing. But I must admit, some of those new cordless, digital, titanium-clad irons do look mighty tempting. That, a small ironing board, a good pair of sneakers, and nerves of steel are all I’d need to participate in the latest sports craze: extreme ironing. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Rock Paper Scissors Tournaments

A stone’s throw from the cutting edge

As regular readers of Interesting Thing of the Day know, I’m not what you’d call a sports enthusiast. Only on the rarest and most unusual occasions can I be persuaded to watch a sporting event, and even less often do I participate. This is partly because I’m not a very competitive person myself—and in general, I don’t like being around those who are. This attitude extends (again, only with occasional and very particular exceptions) even to board games, card games, and the like. They just don’t do anything for me. I’d rather have a conversation, or read a book, or go for a jog (as long as it’s not a race).

On the other hand, I do frequently need to make binary decisions, especially of the “which-one-of-us-gets-to-perform-the-unpleasant-task” variety. If my wife and I are trying to determine which one of us will take out the garbage, do the laundry, feed the cat, or whatever, we will sometimes employ the time-honored method of using a binary random number generator (a coin toss). Other times, we resort to playing “rock, paper, scissors,” an ostensibly random decision-making technique at which I invariably lose. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Petra

The city of stone

Like every other fan of action movies, I went to see Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade when it came out in 1989. I enjoyed the film as an entertaining adventure, notwithstanding the silly premise and the wildly improbable plot. As the story neared its climax, our heroes arrived at the Canyon of the Crescent Moon, where, according to their research, they believed they’d find the temple in which the Holy Grail had been kept hidden all these centuries. And as they rode on horseback through a narrow gorge into this supposedly secret site and the canyon walls opened to reveal the reddish facade of a huge temple carved into a cliff face, my reaction was a bit different from that of most of the other theatergoers. I was thinking: “Hey, my grandparents visited there! I remember seeing the slides when I was a kid.” And I was right: that scene had been shot on location in Petra, Jordan—one of many famous sites my grandparents had visited and photographed on their travels in the Middle East.

Hard Living
The name Petra, from the Greek word for “rock,” aptly describes this long-deserted city that is best known for its numerous buildings and tombs carved directly into sandstone cliffs—many with elaborate facades that would have been challenging to create even for free-standing structures. Everything about Petra seems improbable, from its location to its architecture to the fact that it was mostly forgotten for hundreds of years. Nothing but the outside of that one building is really the way the movie depicts it, but Petra contains enough mysteries and surprises that you could almost believe any fanciful tale about the city. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Alcatraz

Fact and fiction on The Rock

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From the archives…

The Stone Balls of Costa Rica

Mystery spheres as lawn ornaments

When I was last in Costa Rica a couple of years ago, I was on the lookout, as usual, for interesting things. And I found plenty of them: sloths, leaf cutter ants, poison dart frogs, volcanoes, and so on. I was not, however, on the lookout for lawn ornaments, under the assumption that decorative stone sculptures were not particularly interesting. I should have known better than to make such an assumption—after all, I saw “Amélie,” which cast an entirely new light on garden gnomes. Shortly before the end of my trip, a fellow tourist asked me if I knew about the stone balls. “What stone balls?” I asked. “There are these mysterious ancient balls,” he said, “that are so perfectly round, they could not have been carved by hand. Nobody knows where they came from or how they were made, but they’re scattered all over the country, and people like to find them and use them as lawn ornaments.” Sure enough, as we drove along, I spotted stone balls in a few yards, but I didn’t have a chance to photograph one. It seemed strange to me that artifacts with such obvious archeological significance would end up as the Costa Rican equivalent of plastic pink flamingos.

Rolling With the Bunches
The first discovery of the unusual stone balls was made around 1940. The United Fruit Company was preparing large tracts of land in the Diquis Delta on the southern Pacific coast to be used for banana plantations. In the process of clearing the land, they unearthed several dozen balls, ranging in size from a few centimeters to over two meters in diameter. Subsequent archeological research identified and catalogued hundreds of the balls, some of which appeared in other parts of the country. As news of the find began to spread, the balls were rounded up (sorry) by collectors and treasure hunters; today, only six are known to remain in their original positions. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Tufa

The strange rocks with the funny name

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From the archives…

Les Baux

Medieval ghost town and mineral namesake

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From the archives…

Pat O'Brien's

Home of the Hurricane

In December, 2003, a New Orleans bar called Pat O’Brien’s celebrated its 70th anniversary. Although not old by New Orleans standards, Pat O’Brien’s is an icon of the French Quarter, a location to which nearly every tourist makes a pilgrimage. Numerous explanations could be advanced for the bar’s persistent popularity, but I think it comes down to a simple formula: strong drinks, reasonable prices, and atmosphere. Their motto since 1933 has been “Have Fun!”—not especially clever or inventive, but to the point. Truth be told, it’s a euphemism for “Have Rum!” At Pat O’Brien’s, the distinction between the two is vague at best.

Just Add Rum
A lot of bars opened in 1933; it was the year Prohibition was repealed in the United States. B. H. “Pat” O’Brien had been running a speakeasy called Mr. O’Brien’s Club Tipperary, but he turned the operation legit when the law allowed. In 1942, he moved the bar to its current location, a building erected in 1791 as the first Spanish theater in the U.S. But Pat O’Brien’s is best known for its signature drink, the Hurricane. This is a serious drink by anyone’s standard: a tall, ice-filled glass containing 4 ounces of rum and 4 ounces of a sweet, red passion fruit syrup—garnished with a slice of orange and a cherry. The name comes from the shape of the glass, which looks like a hurricane lamp. According to legend, the Hurricane was the brainchild of a liquor salesman in the 1940s who wanted to convince the bar they needed to buy a great deal of rum. (A variation on this story gives credit to a bartender looking for a creative way to deal with excess inventory of rum and grenadine.) [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Interesting Burger Joints

Where the beef is

Many of my friends and relatives are vegetarians. And I respect those who, for reasons of conscience, health, or religious convictions—or perhaps paranoia about Mad Cow Disease or genetic engineering—opt not to eat animal products. I myself eat meat only occasionally and am generally content with a healthy diet of fruits, vegetables, grains, and chocolate. But when it comes to hamburgers, I must confess a special weakness. I could pass up a steak without a second glance, but I can’t easily ignore a well-made burger. Hence my ongoing search for great—or at least interesting—hamburger joints. Here are a few of my current favorites.

In-N-Out
To many people, In-N-Out is just another chain of cheap restaurants in the western U.S. To me, it’s a model of elegant simplicity. The menu contains exactly four food choices: hamburger, cheeseburger, double cheeseburger, fries. There are shakes and the usual beverage assortment—but that’s it. No salads, fish sandwiches, designer chicken pieces, or trendy desserts. Just the basics. If you have to wait in line, it isn’t because the person in front of you can’t decide what to order—and yes, you can shorten the process even further by ordering a combo. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Edible Gold

The gourmet and the alchemist

I like to think of myself as an open-minded person, someone who is tolerant of those with different beliefs, however wacky they may seem to me. Every rule has its exceptions, though. A few years ago while traveling in England, I met a woman who claimed her diet consisted solely of durian, the smelly tropical fruit that looks like a medieval weapon. That was weird, but I was prepared to overlook it; I’ve heard of stranger things. During the course of our discussion about food, however, the woman asked if I’d heard of edible gold. I cheerfully replied that I had, which was true—I’d seen a TV show years earlier about chefs using gold leaf as a decorative but edible garnish on dishes in extremely upscale restaurants. I assumed that’s what she was talking about. But she seemed very surprised that I should know about this, and in a hushed, conspiratorial tone, began excitedly talking about how the ancient Egyptians had discovered that by eating powdered gold, one could become immortal. Very clearly, she believed this too. O…K. Right then and there, all my good intentions of open-mindedness went out the window—that was just way too strange for me to get my brain around.

Later, when I consulted Google to see if I could learn any more about this seemingly outrageous claim, I was shocked and dismayed to find there are tens of thousands of Web pages describing, with great seriousness and credulity, a miraculous substance usually referred to as white powder (or powdered) gold. I spent the better part of an afternoon trying to sort out all the bizarre and competing claims about this stuff—a futile exercise that left me scratching my head. While I can’t claim the slightest expertise in this, ahem, esoteric field, I thought I’d make an attempt to distill, in my alchemical way, the essence of some of these claims for your consideration. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Slow Food

Taking back the dinner table

When Morgen and I lived in San Francisco’s trendy SoMa (South of Market) area, we were frustrated that there were no markets within easy walking distance of our home—not so much as a convenience store. Buying groceries was quite a hassle. Today, however, the situation is different, and when visiting our old neighborhood recently, we saw a great many large, shiny retail stores that had opened since we moved—including a Whole Foods Market. The contrast could not have been more stark between this store and the generic supermarkets where we usually shop. Here, the produce was fresh and healthy-looking rather than faded and bruised. Here, any kind of grain, flour, nut, or legume we could imagine was available in bulk—even red lentils, which we can’t seem to find anywhere else these days. Here, everything from the prepared foods at the deli counter to the seafood to the granola bars had the appearance of quality and wholesomeness (as the store’s name suggests). We gleefully loaded up our shopping cart, excited to be able to stock our pantry with food we could actually feel good about eating.

Then, of course, we saw how much all this was going to cost—a small fortune. Not to mention the cost of renting a car to drive across town. For people on as tight a budget as we are, that really hurts. Leaving aside the political correctness of buying free-range, genetically unmodified, grass-fed, hormone-free, pesticide-free, organic…carrots or whatever, many consumers find that the price of those attributes overshadows the quality and other virtues by a significant amount. When I see a gallon of organic milk sitting right next to a gallon of regular milk that costs half as much, I know that I’m paying for a concept—I’m paying for what I believe in much more than what I will taste on my cereal. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Durian

Exotic fruit and vampire repellent

When I was 19, I spent a summer in Indonesia. That was the first time I heard of a very unusual tropical fruit called durian. Prior to that time, my experience with tropical fruits was limited to relatively familiar ones such as pineapple, banana, mango, and papaya. But durian, which is sometimes called “the king of fruits,” was definitely something different. A missionary told me they have a saying about the fruit: “smells like hell, tastes like heaven.” Whatever else could be said about it, it seemed to provoke very strong reactions from people—either they loved it or they hated it. Unfortunately, durian was out of season at the time, and though I heard that durian ice cream was easy to find, I never actually encountered any.

A decade and a half later, I was living in Vancouver, British Columbia. On an expedition to my favorite Chinese supermarket, I came across a package of frozen durian and thought this would be the ideal way to try it. But I wanted to save it for a special occasion when I could share it with some friends, and before that occasion arose, I went on vacation. I returned to find that the refrigerator had broken down while I was gone, and the freezer—well, the entire house, actually—had a very strong and very foul odor, which I traced to the once-frozen container of fruit. The package of durian went in the trash and was forgotten. I did once have a piece of durian cake at a local bakery—a thoroughly unpleasant experience, I must say—but other than that, durian remained outside my consciousness. [Article Continues…]

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