From the archives…

The Crypt of Civilization

Museum in a time capsule

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Leap Seconds

Time keeps on slippin’

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Antikythera Mechanism

Computer from ancient Greece

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Longitude Problem

Finding your way around the world with a watch

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Clepsydras

Watching time flow with water clocks

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Sleep Debt

Wake now, pay later

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Zeno's Paradoxes

Proof that motion unexists

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Safety Coffins

The fact and fiction of dead ringers

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Optical Telegraphs

18th century wireless telecommunications

Let’s say you’re besieged by a bunch of Orcs and Nazgûl in some fictional city in the realm of Gondor. And let’s say your ancient allies from far away in the land of Rohan are your only faint hope for rescue. How might you call out for help over such a great distance, especially with a bunch of mountains between you and Rohan? You would ignite a large pile of firewood that has been waiting ready at the top of a tower for just such a purpose. And many miles away, on the top of the nearest mountain, a beacon-warden would notice this fire and light one of his own. And then the warden on the next mountain over would do the same thing, and so on, until seven mountains later, your friends saw the fire nearest them and got the message.

Tolkien mentioned this event only in passing on the opening page of his book The Return of the King, but Peter Jackson made it into a dramatic scene in his Oscar-winning 2003 film version of the story. It was a moving and visually stunning portrayal of a desperate plea for aid that, given the circumstances and technological resources available, could not have been conveyed in any other way. And if you understand this long-distance visual method of relaying information, you’ve grasped the basics of the optical telegraph, which predated the more commonly known electric telegraph by decades. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Mail Recovery Centers

Undead letter offices

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

SETI

The real-life quest to find E.T.

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Dead Media

Preserving past communication for the future

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

English Spelling Reform

The difficult path to simpler spelling

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Voynich Manuscript

Cryptography’s holy grail

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Water Freezing and Boiling Myths

Legend, science, and common sense

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Castor Oil

The all-purpose health aid and poison

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Bavarian Purity Law

Beer and tradition

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Toast

Here’s to the ritual of raised glasses

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Kefir

The fermented milk wonder drink

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Martini

Why everything you know is wrong

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

White Tea

Quest for a better brew

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Ball Lightning

Unsatisfactorily identified flying objects

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Murano Glass

The mirror of Venice

Several years ago, on our first trip to Europe, Morgen and I tried very hard to visit as many sites as possible on our “must-see” list, which meant very short stops and lots of travel time. Venice was one of those obligatory stops, and we were both very sad to leave after only a few days, during which we had managed to see just a tiny sliver of the city. I was impressed by the canals, the architecture, the churches, the museums, and the omnipresent music (everywhere we turned, some little chamber orchestra was playing Vivaldi)—as well as the friendly and accommodating locals. We had no real plan other than to wander around and see what there was to see—which was a shame, because with a bit more foresight we might have planned a visit to nearby Murano, the suburb responsible for keeping Venice’s finest gift shops stocked.

The Spittin’ Image
Murano is a cluster of five small, closely spaced islands in the Venetian lagoon, less than 2 miles (about 3km) north of the city of Venice. Murano’s islands, like those of Venice, are linked by bridges and separated by canals; in fact, nearly everything about the town seems to be an extension of its much larger neighbor nearby. That in itself makes Murano an interesting and picturesque place, but it’s best known for its legendary glass craftsmen. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Fire Breathing

Don’t try this at home

As is clear from the many email messages I receive, readers of Interesting Thing of the Day are, on the whole, intelligent, educated, and clear-thinking individuals. You are not prone to careless or reckless behavior, and you have more than a fair measure of common sense. So I felt it unnecessary to point out, for example, when writing about coffee, that it is a hot beverage that could burn you if you are not careful. I did not have to mention that if you enter a wife-carrying contest you should lift with your legs, not with your back. And I felt no need to caution you against saying “My, how lovely you look today” when speaking Klingon. You are smart enough to figure all these things out on your own.

And yet, after reading many Web sites about fire breathing—each of which begins with a stern warning and disclaimer in large bold letters—I feel strangely compelled to point out that actually attempting to breathe fire is an incredibly bad idea. However impressive it may appear, and however many circus performers may have done it all their lives, I must urge you in the strongest possible terms to resist any temptation to bring fire, or indeed flammable substances generally, into proximity with your mouth. If you fail to heed this warning and in so doing suffer disfiguring burns, cancer, loss of important body parts, or death, well, don’t say I didn’t warn you. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Raku

Zen and the art of tea bowls

I understand coffee. I know where it comes from, how it’s processed, how to prepare it in numerous ways, and how much I enjoy drinking it. When it comes to tea, though, I’m out of my element. It’s not that I’m unfamiliar with tea—I’ve got probably a dozen varieties in my kitchen, and I have at least learned how to brew it in a way that wouldn’t cause my British friends to scowl. But beyond the basic concept of using hot water to extract flavor from dried leaves are many subtleties that utterly confound me. On a couple of occasions, for instance, I’ve enjoyed sharing tea with a friend who’s a Buddhist monk. He can discern those infinitesimal hints of flavor and ineffable variations in character that separate one tea from another, in much the same way a wine connoisseur distinguishes a note of vanilla here, a slight whiff of cherry there.

Then there’s the tea ritual. For me, tea has always been a mere beverage, but in many parts of the world, tea must be prepared and consumed according to a strict set of protocols and using just the right implements. Perhaps the best known custom is the Japanese tea ceremony, a ritual that in its most elaborate form can last hours. Japanese tea rituals were heavily influenced by Zen, which accounts for the simplicity, deliberateness, and mindfulness that customarily accompany ceremonial tea drinking, making it more of a meditative practice than an act of hydration. Every element of the ceremony, from the cloth used to clean the tea scoop to the ladle used to transfer the water must be made, used, and cared for in just the right way. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Microbial Fuel Cells

Electricity from bugs

Fuel cells have a very high buzz factor these days. These seemingly magical devices create electricity from hydrogen and oxygen—producing pure water as their only byproduct. Several major cities already have fleets of buses that use fuel cells. Auto manufacturers promise us that within a few years, we’ll be able to buy fuel cell-powered cars that create no pollution at all—thus enabling us to reduce our dependence on oil and slow global warming while saving money with inexpensive hydrogen fuel. Spacecraft have used fuel cells for decades to produce electricity, since the hydrogen and oxygen they need are both conveniently available in onboard tanks. And in the near future, fuel cells may even be put to more prosaic uses, powering notebook computers, cell phones, and other personal electronic devices.

Ship of Fuels
But although fuel cell technology is by no means new, it has yet to achieve large-scale commercial success. One of the main reasons is that hydrogen, the most common fuel, is surprisingly difficult to obtain. Even though hydrogen is present in water, air, and organic matter of all sorts, pure hydrogen is harder to come by. If you use electrolysis to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen so that you can use the hydrogen as fuel to produce electricity, you get into a sort of vicious cycle of energy consumption—it takes almost as much energy to produce the hydrogen in the first place as the hydrogen will later provide when used as fuel. Once you have the pure hydrogen, it’s a pain to store and deliver it safely. So the net cost is fairly high, and the net efficiency is fairly low. If only there were a handier way to obtain hydrogen—or better yet, a fuel cell design that used a more conveniently obtained fuel. Both of these hopes may be met by microbial fuel cells (MFCs), which use bacteria to process virtually any organic matter and turn it into electricity. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Vegetable Oil as Diesel Fuel

Fries and a fill-up

While out for a walk in my neighborhood, I noticed an otherwise ordinary-looking pickup truck with a big sign on the back that said “This vehicle powered by 100% used vegetable oil.” That’s nice, I thought, very environmentally conscious and all—as San Franciscans are known to be. I wondered briefly about the technological issues involved in getting a truck to run on vegetable oil, information that surely would be available a few clicks away on the Web. But I also wondered about maintaining a fuel supply. If you’re on a trip and the fuel gauge starts getting low, a gas station would presumably do you no good. Do you start looking for a doughnut shop or a fast-food joint where you can score some used oil? Is there enough to go around? And will it really end up being less expensive than conventional diesel fuel?

The first claim I discovered sounded too good to be true: diesel engines can, without modification, run on vegetable oil—just like that. Now, I’ll be the first to admit I know precious little about engines, but this revelation puzzled me. If true, then why even bother with petroleum-based fuel in the first place? As it turns out, that claim is only approximately true—some diesel engines can run on some kinds of vegetable oil under some conditions without problems. (This trick doesn’t work with gasoline engines, because the sparks produced cannot ignite vegetable oil.) Still, the fact that this can happen at all seemed pretty amazing to me. It shouldn’t have: had I read about diesel engines more carefully when I was researching fire pistons, I would have learned that the first diesel engines ran on peanut oil, and that Rudolf Diesel’s original idea was that this would be a perfect solution for areas with limited access to petroleum. Today, however, nearly all diesel engines are designed to work with petroleum-based fuel, so running such engines on vegetable oil is not entirely straightforward. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Fire Pistons

The primitive hi-tech fire starters

I’ve never been much of a camping enthusiast. It’s not that I don’t appreciate all the great gadgets associated with camping, and I certainly enjoy hiking, fresh air, and getting away from it all. But after toting all our high-tech apparatus into the middle of nowhere, setting up a tent, and rolling out the sleeping bags, I invariably think to myself: this is an awful lot of work for very little comfort. At home I would have had a nice squishy mattress, a flush toilet, clean water, and no mosquitoes. Why am I doing this again? Then it comes time to build a fire and I discover some cruel corollary of Murphy’s Law at work. On those few days I ever have to attempt this task, it’s always windy, damp, or both. Of course, I know that when matches fail, I can always bring out some specially flammable substance designed expressly for the pyrotechnically challenged. But the latest rage in fire-starting equipment is actually centuries old and uses no chemicals, sparks, or even metal components. Meet the fire piston: a deceptively simple tool that uses compressed air to start a blaze in just seconds.

Light Me Up
A fire piston is a small cylindrical object usually made of wood, bone, or plastic. It consists of two main parts: an outer casing, which is hollow but closed on one end, and the piston itself—a rod or plunger that fits the hole in the casing perfectly and whose tip reaches almost, but not quite, to the stoppered end of the tube. The tip of the piston has a small indentation or hole, and just behind the tip is usually a gasket of some kind to ensure an airtight seal—perhaps a rubber O-ring or simply some waxed string. In other words, very basic parts that require little technological sophistication to create. [Article Continues…]

•••••

Saturday, April 2, 2005

Daylight Saving Time

Springing forward, grudgingly

Ah, the time to spring forward has arrived again. It seems like barely five months ago that I wrote about falling back, grateful that I could enjoy an extra hour of sleep for one night. And now, just like that, I have to return that borrowed hour this weekend. Spring may be here, but somehow I’ve never been able to reconcile the joyful notion of going “forward” with the reality of losing an hour of my day.

A reader once sent me an email that said: “Falling back can also be related to what, coarsely, in Scotland is called a woman with round heels.” What a great euphemism! (For those who need to have it spelled out: “round heels” implies someone who is prone to supineness—sorry, I couldn’t resist—hence, metaphorically, a woman of loose morals.) I imagine “falling back” could also be extended to someone who is drunk, narcoleptic, or just extremely tired. How curious that on the day we spring forward we should all be less well-rested, and thus more prone to falling back! [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Egocasting

Personalized entertainment

Guest Article by Rajagopal Sukumar

An interesting phenomenon is gaining momentum in the world of media as people begin to use technology to take control of when, where, and how they consume content. Christine Rosen wrote a seminal article “The Age of Egocasting” in The New Atlantis that describes this phenomenon in great detail. Rosen takes the reader through a fascinating journey covering the history of various technological advances such as the TV, remote control, VCR, TiVo, and iPod, and explains how they have now culminated in the capability to create a personal bubble, inside which we as “content consumers” are the sole masters of what we see and hear. Rosen bestowed on this phenomenon the catchy name “Egocasting” and went on to define it as “the thoroughly personalized and extremely narrow pursuit of one’s personal taste, where we exercise an unparalleled degree of control over what we watch and what we hear.”

Although Rosen describes how content consumption patterns are changing, the content being consumed in Rosen’s world is still exclusively produced by the mainstream media (MSM, as it is sometimes called these days). Actually, technology is having a very big impact on the content production side as well, and is giving rise to a new media that may one day be a big powerful rival to the MSM. Before we review the changing power equation, let’s take a quick look at the main sources of power the MSM possesses: [Article Continues…]

•••••

Archives