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interesting thing of the day

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 coldthe 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.ice hotels are built, naturally, entirely out of frozen water in the form of ice blocks and hard-packed snow. in some cases, blocks of ice are sawed from a river; for other parts of the building snow is compressed into wooden forms to create building blocks. the guest rooms contain beds made of a block of ice and topped with a foam mattress. you sleep in high-tech mummy-style sleeping bags covered with animal pelts; although the air temper...





interesting thing of the day

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 thisclass 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.a spoonerism is like metathesis but instead of affecting adjacent sounds with...





interesting thing of the day

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 victorywhen 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?the answer has been surprisingly difficult to track down; in fact, after s...





interesting thing of the day

a news article mentioned a hotel bar in new york whose drink menu includes a us$10,000 drink called “martini on the rock.” that works out to about $5 for the gin, vermouth, and olives—and $9,995 for the loose diamond sitting at the bottom of the glass. patrons must order the drink three days in advance, and meet with a jeweler to pick out the perfect stone. the first person to order this drink paid a bit extra—$13,000—and instead of a loose stone, selected a 1.85-carat diamond engagement ring. (his girlfriend said yes.) perhaps unknown to the hotel’s proprietors, this extravagant beverage has a fascinating historical precedent.et tu, cleo?the year was 41 b.c. mark antony, one of the rulers of rome, summoned egyptian queen cleopatra vii for an audience at tarsus (in present-day turkey). antony ostensibly wanted cleopatra to answer charges that she had aided cassius, who had conspired with brutus to assassinate julius caesar. but most people believe the real reason for the meeting was that antony wanted egyptian aid for an upcoming military campaign, and besides, he had the hots for cleopatra.cleopatra arrived on her legendary barge, and proceeded to throw elaborate banquets for antony and his officials for several evenings straight—nothing like a bit of wining and dining to smooth over political misunderstandings. so impressed was antony at the lavish feasts cleopatra had arranged that he accepted a friendly wager. cleopatra bet antony a large sum of money that s...





interesting thing of the day

on occasion, you may have heard it said of some wonderful gadget, “this is the greatest invention since sliced bread!” such a comment is intended to be both a compliment and a reference to how revolutionary and world-changing the invention is. it’s worth bearing in mind, though, that while people have been slicing bread for eons, pre-sliced, packaged bread has only been available since 1928, when otto frederick rohwedder introduced the world’s first mechanical bread slicer in battle creek, michigan. i don’t know what revolutionary invention the bread-slicer was compared to when it first appeared, but sooner or later, it all goes back to the wheel. nobody seems to be able to come up with an older, or more important, invention than that.giving it a spinbefore i began my curatorial duties here at interesting thing of the day, i had never really wondered when the wheel was invented, much less why it was invented. that’s obvious, isn’t it? everyone knows the wheel was invented to enable people to move stuff around more easily—a revolutionary alternative (so to speak) to carrying, pushing, or dragging heavy objects. surprisingly enough, some historians and archeologists aren’t so sure about that. there is in fact a fairly good case for the hypothesis that the wheel was invented to facilitate pottery making.the wheel was almost certainly invented in mesopotamia—present-day iraq. estimates on when this may have occurred range from 5500 to 3000 b.c., with most gues...





interesting thing of the day

i never cease to be amazed at how frequently the interesting things i merely imagine turn out to be real. for instance, my relentless research in the field of goblets and challenges led me to wonder whether there might be some special type of goblet used in drinking games. i turned as usual to the sacred oracle, the source of all wisdom in the universe, for guidance. and what google told me, after a fashion, was that such goblets do indeed exist. in fact, depending on one’s willingness to stretch the definition of goblet, which in my case is boundless, there may be several very different sorts of goblets that figure in drinking games.for example, there’s a dice game played in bolivia called alalay. it’s quite similar to yahtzee, in that it involves rolling five dice, with scoring based on the values of various number combinations. as in yahtzee, the dice are placed in a small container and shaken before being thrown. in alalay, this container, which is made of stiff leather, is called a goblet. alalay is sometimes played as a drinking game, though the goblet itself is never used for alcohol; it wouldn’t do to get the dice wet.i’ll drink to thatbut i found an even closer and more literal match for drinking-game-related goblets: something called a passglas (sometimes spelled pasglas)—a design that was popular in germany, the netherlands, denmark, finland, estonia, and sweden during the 16th through 18th centuries. a passglas is a tall glass—sometimes cylindrical b...





interesting thing of the day

an article titled “can you tell red from white?” in the online edition of wine spectator magazine a couple of years ago began with this line:the new yorker threw down the gauntlet. wine spectator rose to the challenge.whatever else you may say about the two magazines in question or the qualifications of the authors they hire to write about wine, this much is clear: wine spectator missed a critical opportunity for an excellent pun. in fact, so blatant was their oversight that it casts grave doubts on the magazine’s editorial sensibilities.the red and white bluesbut linguistic flexibility is a much less serious matter than that which concerned humorist calvin trillin, who wrote an article titled “the red and the white. is it possible that wine connoisseurs can’t tell them apart?” in the august 19 & 26, 2002, edition of the new yorker. trillin claimed to have heard from multiple sources that wine experts—even those with degrees in enology from the university of california, davis—routinely failed a blind taste test in which participants were asked simply to pick which wines (served at room temperature in black glasses) were red and which were white. if true, this suggests that the whole enterprise of tasting and judging wines rests on a shaky foundation at best.in the course of trillin’s research, he discovered that the test he had heard of was most likely an urban myth, or at least a significant embellishment of a test where wines are judged by smell rather tha...





interesting thing of the day

you’d be surprised how few literary examples of goblet-throwing there are. i mean, sure, this sort of thing shows up every now and then in your basic fantasy novel, but history isn’t exactly littered with the shards of goblets broken dramatically at the climax of some great epic tale. except for one, of course: the hymiskviða (the lay of hymir), a poem that tells the story of thor’s heroic acquisition of hymir’s cauldron. this is the sort of story you read to your kids at bedtime—if you happen to live in iceland in the year 1300 or thereabouts. for those not familiar with the story, here is an extremely abbreviated and very slightly accurate retelling.give me a cauldron large enough, and a place to stand…the gods of asgard were looking for an eternal source of mead, and they demanded that ægir, god of the sea, provide it for them. ægir, unhappy with the tone of their request, said he’d only do it if the gods could supply him with a cauldron large enough, such enormous vessels being rather scarce. tyr, the god of war and justice, knew just where to obtain such an item: his father, the giant hymir, had one that was “a league deep” (that would be about three and a half miles—certainly large enough to keep the gods drunk for a few millennia). but tyr knew his father wouldn’t acquiesce easily, so he enlisted the aid of thor, the god of thunder, to trick hymir into parting with the giant cauldron.thor and tyr went together to visit the bellicose hymir. afte...





interesting thing of the day

when i was in high school, i had a darkroom in the basement. because i didn’t do a large quantity of film processing, one of my biggest concerns was that the expensive chemicals would go bad before i had a chance to use them. since it is primarily exposure to oxygen that damages photographic chemicals, i stored them in air-evacuation containers, which are basically plastic bags inside boxes. as you drain out the chemical through a special spout that sticks through the box, the bag shrinks, thus making sure no air gets in. this solution is simple, elegant, and effective.the very same laws of chemistry apply to wines, and that is why wine is sometimes sold “by the box” in air-evacuation containers. it keeps wine fresher longer, and is even less expensive, in many cases, than bottled wine. what’s not to like? and yet, boxed wine is routinely ridiculed as low-class. everyone knows that any decent wine will be stored in a corked bottle. it’s just the way things are. it’s not about oxidation, it’s about perception. you have to do things right. buying wine in a box is tantamount to buying wine with a screw cap. it’s an indication of poor quality. or is it?recently i’ve been seeing an increasing number of wine bottles stoppered with a “cork” made out of plastic. and i confess that my initial reaction is invariably one of embarrassment. (“i should know better than to choose such a cheap wine.”) this is of course irrational; i know intellectually that the impo...





interesting thing of the day

one day morgen and i were having a brainstorming session, as we frequently do, about interesting things that might fit in with certain weeks’ themes. the expression “hit or miss” came up, and we began talking about things that involve hits and misses. morgen said, “do you know what the national sport in bhutan is?” i was embarrassed to admit i did not even know exactly where bhutan is located; it’s simply not a place i’ve ever spent much time thinking about. morgen told me that bhutan is between china and india. although this didn’t give me any strong clues, i made what i thought was a safe guess: “soccer.” that turned out to be a particularly bad guess, because in 2002, bhutan’s national soccer team was ranked 202 out of 203 worldwide; fifa sanctioned a special match that year, at the same time as the world cup finals, between bhutan and 203rd-ranked montserrat; the match was covered in a documentary film called “the other final.”in fact, bhutan’s national sport is archery. that fact alone, i think, qualifies as an interesting thing, but there’s more to the story.weapons of playbhutan is a buddhist nation, and one of the central precepts of buddhism is a reverence for all life. so it seems somewhat incongruous that the nation’s favorite game involves a hunting instrument (or, depending on how you look at it, a weapon of war). but in bhutan, the bow and arrow can only be used for play. in fact, when making arrows, one can use only feathers that...





interesting thing of the day

my wife kept her name when we got married. this being the 21st century, i wouldn’t have thought that would be in any way surprising or problematic. but in the modern english-speaking world, linguistic habits haven’t quite caught up with changing social conventions—many people (and computers) still assume that when a man and woman get married, the woman will take on the man’s surname. as a result, we get mail addressed to “mrs. morgen kissell” and even, bafflingly, “mrs. liz kissell”—morgen’s given first name is elizabeth, but she has gone by her middle name since birth, and has never, ever been called liz. at least no one, to my knowledge, has called her “mrs. joseph kissell,” which i think both of us would find rather offensive.as annoying as such mistakes can be, i do sympathize with folks who no longer feel they have a proper, respectful, and appropriate title to use when addressing women. the title “miss,” which used to refer to an unmarried woman of any age, has fallen into disfavor, except for young girls. and “mrs.” is supposed to refer to a married woman, but only when using her husband’s last name. (morgen certainly is neither “miss jahnke” nor “mrs. kissell,” but she can’t be “mrs. jahnke” either, because that would imply my last name is jahnke.) so that leaves “ms.,” which virtually every style guide now proclaims as the only reasonable choice, but which many people hesitate to use because it feels like an odd, ne...





interesting thing of the day

pennsylvania is a state (well, commonwealth if you want to be completely nitpicky) known for its linguistic, uh, irregularities. in the western part of the state, where i grew up, many people speak an endearingly odd dialect of english called pittsburghese. some town names have pronunciations that utterly belie their foreign roots. dubois is pronounced “dew boys”; north versailles is “north ver-sales”; la jose is “la joes.” then, of course, there are towns that simply have goofy names—eighty four, slippery rock, and punxsutawney come to mind.i’ve been to pennsylvania; ask me about intercourse.but to put all these oddities in perspective, western pennsylvanians rightly consider their geographic nomenclature downright bland compared to what you’ll encounter on the other side of the state. drive four hours east from pittsburgh and you’re in lancaster county, an area that attracts tourists by the thousands each year for no other reason than that they want to be able to say they went through intercourse to get to paradise. (this makes for a roundabout route, as it turns out, but that’s only fitting.) other nearby towns include blue ball, fertility, gap, bird-in-hand, smoketown, and even (i swear i am not making this up) kissel hill. these place names seem all the more amusing because the area is known for its religious conservatism, being home to large numbers of amish and old-order mennonite folk in particular.the other thing lancaster county is known for is...





interesting thing of the day

i need to say a few words about woodchucks. (first let me pause while you say the rhyme to yourself. go on, you know you want to. get it out of your system. good.) i never understood what the word “chuck” was supposed to mean in the rhyme. chuck isn’t often used as a verb; when it is, its most common meaning is “to throw” (as in, “chuck that aol cd in the trash”). this is naturally not the type of thing we expect a woodchuck to be capable of (as indicated by the counterfactual nature of the question in the rhyme). so the real question is why anyone would have given this animal such a nonsensical name in the first place.(as an aside, woodchuck isn’t the only nonsensical name this animal has. it’s also called a groundhog. oddly enough, “groundhog” is a fairly literal translation of the dutch word aardvark, even though aardvarks don’t look anything like hogs. woodchucks (marmota monax) are rodents, or more precisely marmots, and are not even distantly related to either aardvarks or hogs. the most salient similarity among the three species is a propensity for burrowing.)gimme a wthe name woodchuck is derived from a word in one of the algonquian languages spoken by native americans—either the cree word otchek or the related ojibwa word otchig. the english-speaking settlers in north america found these words hard to pronounce, so they substituted syllables that sounded more familiar and yet approximated the original sound; hence “woodchuck.” the proces...





interesting thing of the day

i set out to find a simple answer to a simple question: why is there no meat in mincemeat? it was going to be a tidy tale of how a misnomer was born. look up a few web sites, collect a few facts, wrap them in a nice story, and on to the next project. as so often happens, however, my research took a rather circuitous path as i kept discovering connections and facts that i’d had no inkling of when i started out. the story of mincemeat is more interesting—and convoluted—than i ever imagined.mincemeat is, i must confess, a topic about which i have never felt much passion. in my family, mincemeat pie was simply one of a half dozen standard christmas dessert choices. i rarely had room for more than two, and in my personal hierarchy of dessert preferences, mincemeat ranked well below johnny bull pudding and blackberry pie. on the occasions i did eat mincemeat pie, it made no particular impression on me other than provoking a vague curiosity at its name, since whatever the filling was, it clearly did not contain any meat.one explanation for the name could be that in old english, the word meat had the more generic meaning of “food,” whether or not it happened to come from the flesh of animals. thus, a mincemeat pie would actually have been a “minced food” pie, which could have been anything. however plausible this may sound, however, this explanation turns out to be incorrect (or at least misleading).a pie fit for a king (or two)centuries ago, mincemeat was so named for ...





charlie and his orchestra / swing music as nazi propaganda

hitler's government tried repeatedly to outlaw jazz, and especially swing, which were seen as symbolizing the enemy's values. but they also secretly created their own swing band as a vehicle for spreading propaganda.





pedometers / your mileage may vary

you can measure the distance you walk or run (with a fairly large margin of error) by wearing a pedometer. for this marvelous invention, we must thank none other than thomas jefferson.





rent-a-dog / canine company by the hour

you can rent a car, bike, or hotel room when you travel, so why not a dog? strange but true: in some places you actually can rent a dog for an afternoon. critics think it's cruel and unusual.





fleur de sel / the last word in gourmet salt

one of the world's rarest and most expensive kinds of salt comes from the sea, but has a very special method of harvesting.





sea monkeys / new life for an old fad

instant life! just add water! sea monkeys are back, but brine shrimp still don't make particularly good pets. sneaky marketing strikes again.





intaglio printing / duplicating under pressure

for the highest quality large-scale printing possible with current technology, use the technique that carved out a niche for itself in paper currency.