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Interesting Thing of the Day

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interesting thing of the day

i remember where i was when i heard the news that elvis died. on august 16, 1977, i was in washington, d.c. on vacation with my parents. we were watching tv in our hotel room while getting dressed for our day of sightseeing when the news was announced. although they would not have said so, i suspected my parents were secretly relieved that the world was rid of a corrupting influence. as for me, i was only vaguely aware of elvis from commercials pitching his records, and from the fact that he and my father had the same birthday. i was much more concerned that we have time to visit the national air and space museum, which had just opened the previous summer, and which was to be—for me, at least—the highlight of this trip. the promise of getting to see a real spaceship, real moon rocks, and so on was, for this ten-year-old kid, incredibly exciting.the museum was everything i had hoped it would be—and more. the last attraction we saw was, naturally, the gift shop, and i tried to get my parents to buy me as many of those amazing goodies as possible. one particular item near the checkout caught my attention: freeze-dried ice cream (“like the astronauts eat!”). at that time, astronaut ice cream was not available just anywhere, and this curious novelty was too good for my mom, a confirmed ice cream junkie, to pass up. we bought a packet and marveled at how this warm, dry stuff nevertheless tasted exactly like ice cream. i had previously thought that the coolest thing about ...





interesting thing of the day

fog, as i have said for many years, is my all-time favorite weather condition. other than its impact on driving, i like everything about fog—the coolness, the dampness, the way it muffles sounds, and especially the mysterious, spooky quality it gives its surroundings. so the first time i took a streetcar out to san francisco’s ocean beach years ago, i was delighted to discover that, more often than not, the entire area is covered with fog. morgen and i walked along the beach and up a hill to a building called the cliff house, a restaurant with a majestic, sweeping view of the mist—and, occasionally, bits of the ocean and nearby seal rock. the cliff house is a favorite tourist destination—not so much for the food but for the view, the gift shops, and a few other attractions nearby. the attraction we had gone there to see was located inconspicuously around the back, downstairs in the basement of the cliff house—and advertised only by a small, folding wooden sign on the sidewalk near the restaurant that said, simply, “musée mécanique.” the old machine and the seathe musée mécanique (or mechanical museum) looked like something that belonged a century in the past—an effect enhanced considerably by the fog. inside a large room with peeling paint and a crumbling ceiling was a collection of hundreds of very old mechanical toys, games, and other amusements. for example, there were dozens of automatons—machines in which small figures walk, dance, or otherwise move...





interesting thing of the day

one year for my wife’s birthday, i bought her a book called ghost towns of northern california. i was excited to find it, because morgen is not an easy person to shop for. ask her about her favorite things, and “decay” will be close to the top of the list. by this she doesn’t necessarily mean antiques; age itself is not the issue. she likes artifacts with visible signs of the passage of time. what do you buy for a person who likes decay? i figured a book on ghost towns might be just the thing—especially since many of them were close enough that we could actually visit them. and i was right: the book was a hit.we decided to rent a car and drive to one of these towns over a long weekend. after perusing the book thoroughly, we chose bodie, a day’s drive east of san francisco, near the nevada border. bodie was said to be the largest and best-preserved ghost town in the united states, and it seemed like an ideal place to experience decay.body languagewaterman s. body (sometimes spelled “bodey”) and his partner e. s. “black” taylor discovered gold in the area in 1859 and built a cabin nearby. but body froze to death the following year in a snowstorm while on his way back with supplies. later that year, taylor helped to establish a mining camp, which soon took on body’s name. the spelling was changed when a sign painter who received verbal instructions guessed incorrectly, but everyone liked the spelling “bodie” better because it was less likely to be mispr...





interesting thing of the day

for the past decade or so, i’ve been in the habit of reading every new michael crichton novel as soon as it’s released. i like the stories, but what appeals to me more is the depth of historical and scientific research he puts into his work. it’s often had to tell where reality ends and fiction begins, which i’m sure is exactly what he’s aiming for. given my fondness for france, i was especially interested in his book timeline, published in 1999 (and made into a disappointingly forgettable movie in 2003). most of the book’s action takes place in the dordogne river valley in southwestern france—partly in the 14th century and partly in the 20th. in particular, crichton’s description of the town of sarlat caught my attention. it’s the site of just one minor scene and is only given a passing mention. but what the book describes is a quaint town preserved as it was in medieval times—a place full of history and character. guidebooks generally speak highly of the town too, and i thought it sounded like a great place to visit. on our first trip to france, in 2000, our schedule did not permit an excursion to sarlat, but morgen and i decided we’d do our best to go there the next time we were in the area.getting there is half the funin june of 2003 we returned to france, and we hoped once again to visit sarlat. we had left the last week of our trip deliberately unplanned to allow ourselves the option of doing whatever seemed most interesting at the time. when it fi...





interesting thing of the day

as an amateur theoretical physicist, i know all about the principle that the speed of light is the ultimate speed limit in the universe. i’ll be the first to admit that it’s difficult to wrap my brain around this concept, but i accept that it’s true. light not only travels really, really fast, it also travels at a constant speed, irrespective of the relative speed of an observer. furthermore, any bit of matter that is in motion increases in mass as its speed increases, approaching infinite mass as it approaches the speed of light (and requiring, in theory, infinite energy to accelerate it to that speed). taken together, this information rather strongly suggests that nothing can be made to travel faster than light. the details of the math and physics don’t fully make sense to me, even after reading the works of einstein and several modern physicists. but then, these folks are professionals in the field whereas i am not; if they say that their long years of research lead them to conclude unhesitatingly that nothing can move faster than light, who am i to disagree?faster than a speeding photonbut in 1962, a group of physicists made the provocative observation that einstein’s special theory of relativity does not actually prohibit matter from traveling faster than light, only from being accelerated to faster-than-light speeds. this may seem like an irrelevant distinction—and perhaps it is. but suppose there were a particle that came into existence already traveling fa...





interesting thing of the day

and now for something slightly different.last year on my first-ever visit to london, i took in many of the standard tourist attractions—dutifully snapping photos, reading the histories in the guide books, and so on. but i quickly realized that there was a disconnection between the kinds of things i find interesting and the kinds of things most tourists find interesting. take big ben, for example. you can’t go to london without seeing (and hearing) big ben. it’s just one of those things. (and it’s a rather prominent feature of the skyline, too, so it would be difficult to avoid seeing even if you wanted to.) so we saw big ben. but other than having heard about it in children’s songs and stories since i was young, i couldn’t figure out what i was supposed to be so excited about. i’ve seen clocks. i’ve heard bells. here’s one that’s larger than average. so?it was not until well after i returned that i discovered a whole list of facts about big ben i hadn’t previously known. although individually these facts are not extraordinarily impressive, i think that collectively they are rather interesting. if my british readers, for whom all of this is probably old news, will forgive me, i’d like to present a sampling of interesting things about the world’s most famous clock tower.the part and the whole: for starters, contrary to common usage, big ben is actually the nickname of a single bell—not the clock itself, the tower in which it is installed, or the buil...





interesting thing of the day

it has become my custom here at interesting thing of the day to choose topics that i think will be unfamiliar to most readers—a sort of implicit “i’ll-bet-you’ve-never-heard-of-this” test. i think it’s fair to say that any educated person over the age of 10 or so has probably heard of carbon dating. but i realized the other day that even as an adult with a fair amount of scientific knowledge, i could not articulate exactly how or why carbon dating works. so i did a bit of research to fill in the gaps in my understanding, and not surprisingly i found the details to be quite interesting. what did surprise me was the huge number of web sites and books vigorously attacking the legitimacy of what i had thought was a fairly straightforward, uncontroversial test. apparently carbon dating is right up there with evolution in terms of the disdain it evokes from certain religious groups. as is often the case, the controversy over this topic is at least as interesting as the topic itself.carbon copiescarbon dating begins, logically enough, with carbon. high in the atmosphere, cosmic rays strike nitrogen atoms, producing a radioactive carbon isotope known as carbon-14 (or 14c); this is why it’s technically known as radiocarbon dating or, sometimes, carbon-14 dating. carbon-14, along with the more common, stable (nonradioactive) carbon isotopes carbon-12 and carbon-13, combine with oxygen to produce carbon dioxide. in the process of photosynthesis, plants “breathe” this c...





interesting thing of the day

when it comes to art, i have very particular (and, often, unpopular) tastes. i’ve been to many of the world’s largest and most famous art museums, and i’ve seen and read enough to be able to talk fairly intelligently about what i’m looking at. but i must be brutally honest: of the many thousands of paintings, sculptures, photographs, multimedia installations, and other sorts of art i’ve seen in my lifetime, i have only actually enjoyed a tiny handful of pieces. my criteria for art enjoyment are quite narrow, having nothing to do with the time period in which something was made, the nationality of the artist, or the piece’s genre. if i had to deconstruct my art evaluation mechanism, i’d probably say i care about just three things: is it visually appealing? is it skillfully done? and is it interesting?needless to say, evaluating these three questions is a completely subjective matter, but in any case my answers tend to be “no” to all three more often than for most people. i don’t need art to be beautiful or evocative or metaphysically meaningful, but i do need it to flip those ineffable emotional switches in my brain that mean “this works for me.” whatever else can be said about a piece of art, if i can’t grasp it in some basic way without reading a detailed treatise by the artist or some art expert on what it supposedly means, i don’t like it. in my book, the appreciation of a piece of art should be automatic, spontaneous, and immediate—not depend...





interesting thing of the day

there are a bunch of little facts that i sort of half-learned in elementary school, and have had a hard time remembering ever since. i remember the terms “dromedary” and “bactrian,” for example, but that crucial bit of information about which camel has one hump and which has two just didn’t stick. the same thing goes for names of cloud types—cirrus, cumulus, nimbus—i know the names but i forget which is which. and then there’s coal. i vividly recall learning about anthracite, bituminous, and lignite coal as a child in pennsylvania, a state legendary for its coal production. but which type had which properties? it’s all a blur now. since i did not pursue an education or profession in which this knowledge was needed, my brain apparently decided to delete those records to make space for really important information, such as star trek trivia.i do remember, though, that when i was quite young my father took me to a coal mine that offered tours to the public. i thought it was absolutely the coolest thing ever. getting to ride in that train down into the dark tunnels, seeing all that amazing machinery, and imagining the life of a miner was exciting and mysterious. i’ve always had a fondness for caverns and tunnels—maybe that’s where it all started.as an adult living in california, i rarely think about coal mines. i do, however, think about wildfires and forest fires, especially in the dry months of late summer. everyone understands that these things just happ...





interesting thing of the day

as a kid, i always wanted to be a mad scientist or inventor of some kind. so i taught myself just enough about chemistry and electronics to be dangerous, and i often had some sort of project or experiment underway. around age 16 or 17, i was hard at work on my latest contraption—using my bed as a workbench since my desk was perpetually covered with junk. this project involved some soldering, a task at which i was moderately skilled. however, as i was leaning over my work, trying to steady myself by resting my elbow on the mattress, my arm slipped and i fell forward onto the bed with the soldering iron sandwiched between my forearm and the bedspread. apart from the initial shock, the first sensation i recall experiencing was the smell of burning flesh and hair, followed by the realization that i had ruined my bedspread, and then very shortly thereafter, a good bit of pain.any number of lessons could be learned from such an experience—for instance, “don’t solder in bed.” it’s also a reminder that there are any number of ways to generate dangerous levels of heat in close proximity to one’s body. fortunately, this incident did not set me on fire. but if conditions had been just right, could this run-in with the soldering iron have reduced me to ash? this is just the sort of question pondered by those who investigate the phenomenon known as spontaneous human combustion (shc).up in flameslet’s start with some science. spontaneous combustion, in and of itself, is a w...





flywheel batteries / a new spin on energy storage

chemical batteries aren't the only way to store large amounts of electricity. reduce the friction enough, and a large, heavy, spinning wheel can serve the same purpose. it also lasts a lot longer than batteries.





interesting thing of the day

bookstores are dangerous places for me. i invariably leave with less money—and more books than i’ll ever have time to read. but i have to support my habit: i’m basically an idea junkie. i like to learn things, absorb new ideas, and challenge my mind to form connections between concepts that don’t seem to go together. so i choose books not because i assume they’re true, but because i expect them to be interesting or thought-provoking. when i’ve finished reading a book, though, i usually have a pretty strong sense of whether or not i believe it. after reading a dozen books by carlos castaneda—along with quite a few criticisms of his work—i could only come to the conclusion that the stories he told may or may not be somewhat or completely true. this very uncertainty is one of the things that makes his books so interesting. i have since revised my conclusion—about which more later. but first, some background.for years, as i browsed through second-hand books, i frequently came across castaneda’s the teachings of don juan: a yaqui way of knowledge. i’d invariably pick it up, glance at it, and put it back on the shelf. then i read fritjof capra’s the tao of physics, which had a brief quote from don juan at the beginning, and that piqued my curiosity. shortly thereafter, i ran across the book at a thrift shop and decided i could give it a whirl for 50 cents. within a few pages i was hooked, and after finishing it i read all 11 of its successors. for better or ...





interesting thing of the day

books used to be such rare and wonderful things. i’m not talking about centuries ago, either. as recently as a couple of decades ago, when i was in school, i felt awestruck every time i visited the large public library downtown. it was amazing to me that as an ordinary citizen—a kid, no less—i could walk in and borrow nearly any book, no matter how old, famous, or important it was. searching through endless card catalogs seemed like a mysterious black art, and i was always slightly surprised to find that a book i was looking for was actually on the shelves. wouldn’t everyone in the city want to read this?i’m equally amazed at the profound changes that have taken place in the last ten years or so with respect to how people think about books. on the one hand, there seems to be an increasingly common assumption that all useful knowledge exists in digital form, or is at least catalogued that way. where once a search for information would begin at the library, now it seems that’s the last place many people look—if it isn’t on the web, how important can it be? on the other hand, despite the ever-increasing numbers of books being published and mega-bookstores like borders, barnes & noble, and amazon.com, the meme of borrowing books from a library has lost a lot of its vigor. you can pick up any book you might want on the way home from work, or order it online with one click. for a certain segment of modern western society, going to a library for books is now seen as ...





interesting thing of the day

during the summers when i was growing up, my bedroom had an air conditioner mounted in the window. i loved the hot nights when i got to turn it on, but only partially because it cooled the room. what i liked best was the sound, which i found to be very soothing. years later, when i was in college, i had a classmate everyone made fun of because he couldn’t go to sleep without having a radio on next to his bed—playing static. for some reason, the sound of static on a radio seemed goofy in a way that the sound of an air conditioner did not, but they amounted to roughly the same thing: white noise, which has a well-known ability to promote sleep by masking other sounds.most of us have seen white noise generators or cds of white noise that are sold as sleep aids—sometimes especially for infants. a different class of white noise generator is used for testing and calibration of pro audio equipment. but what exactly is white noise, how does it work, and why is it called “white”?pure noiseif you think back to elementary-school science classes, you probably learned that white light is a combination of all the other colors of light; using a prism, we can separate it into its component colors. by analogy, “white” noise is composed of sounds of every frequency within the range of human hearing—roughly 20 to 20,000hz (cycles per second)—with each part of the frequency spectrum equal in amplitude (volume). it’s called “noise” instead of “sound” because it is rand...





interesting thing of the day

when i began making audio recordings of interesting thing of the day articles, i immediately realized that my office was not acoustically appropriate. there were too many extraneous sounds—fans, hard drives, and so on—and my fancy new microphone picked them all up perfectly. so i decided to set up a little recording studio for myself in a closet. the closet door nicely blocked out the sounds of the room, as well as most of the sounds from other parts of the house, traffic outside, and so on. the problem was that the recordings sounded like i was in a closet, or maybe a bathroom—the flat walls and ceiling added an unpleasant reverberation to my voice. in professional recording studios, the walls are usually covered with special acoustic foam to absorb most of those reflected sounds and give the sounds being recorded a more pristine character. i didn’t have any acoustic foam handy, so i covered the walls with old blankets instead. that did the trick: now my voice sounds correct, and i can always add reverberation or other effects later if i feel the need.recording studios are generally designed both to keep outside sounds from being heard inside the room and to keep sounds generated inside the room from bouncing around enough to be picked up by the microphones—and they invariably do a better job at both than my makeshift studio-in-a-closet. however, they’re still far from soundproof or acoustically “dead.” a noisy motorcycle or heavy truck coming down the road o...





interesting thing of the day

today’s article was going to be a pretty straightforward technological exposition. i was going to describe a procedure that can improve hearing in ways that conventional hearing aids cannot, mention some of the limitations and risks involved, and pretty much leave it at that. then i got an email from a friend wondering if i was planning to cover the political issues cochlear implants raise for the deaf community. um…political issues? i hadn’t known there were any. but after a bit of research, i discovered that the controversy surrounding this procedure is at least as interesting as the procedure itself, which has been called everything from a miracle cure to genocide.can you hear me now?first, a bit of background. there are many different types and causes of deafness. some kinds of hearing loss can be compensated for very adequately with just a bit of amplification—namely, a hearing aid. however, if there is a defect or damage in the inner ear, a hearing aid may do no good. our perception of sound results from the vibrations of tiny hairs lining the cochlea, a spiral, fluid-filled organ in the inner ear. when the hairs move, the hair cells convert the movement into nerve impulses, which are then sent to the brain for decoding. if the vibrations never reach the cochlea, or if the hair cells themselves are damaged, no neural stimulation occurs and deafness results.however, if most of the underlying nerve fibers themselves (and the neural pathways to the brain) are intac...





interesting thing of the day

regular readers may recall an article here several months ago about brain machines—electronic devices that use flashing lights to promote relaxation. the idea behind these machines is that brainwaves have a tendency to fall in step with stimuli of certain frequencies—a phenomenon known as entrainment. so by flashing lights at the same frequency as one’s brainwaves would have during, say, deep meditation, a machine should be able to induce a meditative state artificially. it’s a fascinating concept, and there are numerous gadgets that use light or sound and light together to induce sleep, improve learning and creativity, and perform any number of other feats.in the course of my research for that article, i noticed that there were also products that claimed to produce exactly the same effect using sound alone. somewhat skeptical, i put on some headphones and listened to one of the sample recordings. the next thing i knew, i was waking up, wiping the drool from my keyboard. a half hour had gone by and i never knew what hit me. whatever happened, the effect was as surprising as it was impressive.beat iti decided to investigate further. there are, it turns out, quite a few different companies selling cds, tapes, and electronic gadgets based on the basic notion of binaural beats. although they come in many different forms and have different claims, they all exploit an interesting quality of the brain.if you were to listen to two musical instruments playing the same note, bu...





interesting thing of the day

i’m not your average home audio enthusiast. i’m one of a rare breed—an imaginary home audio enthusiast. that is to say, i know all about the technology behind stereo equipment, surround sound, dolby, thx, and all those other impressive-sounding names; i have a respectable cd collection; i have forsworn analog audio and video; and i know exactly what my home theater setup would look like…if i had one. there are imaginary speakers all around my living room, wired to an imaginary amplifier, tuner, cd changer, and digital media receiver; these nicely complement my imaginary widescreen plasma tv. the problem is not knowing what i want, how to hook it up, or where to put it; the problem is that my cheap tv and boom box reproduce sound adequately, and i have not yet convinced myself that my music-listening or dvd-watching experience would be enough better with thousands of dollars of audio equipment to justify the cost. of course, it’s also a problem that what my imagination says is adequate to provide the ideal listening environment changes as technology improves.when i was a kid, the term high fidelity still meant something—it set apart audio equipment that had been deliberately engineered for faithful sound reproduction and a high signal-to-noise ratio from cheaper, cruder devices. at a certain point, though, pretty much everything was considered “hi-fi”; the new buzzword was stereo. having equipment and recordings with two discrete channels of audio—convenientl...





interesting thing of the day

it all comes back to star trek. whenever i have a complaint about the way technology works—or doesn’t—a little voice in the back of my head says, “they don’t worry about this on star trek.” one of the things they don’t, apparently, worry about aboard starships a few centuries hence is being understood by computers. keyboards and mice, we are led to believe, are relics of the distant past, and voice recognition has been perfected. that’s a rosy and probably overly optimistic future, but one small aspect of the star trek computer interface is closer than many people realize. have you ever noticed that when giving spoken commands to the onboard computer, enterprise crewmembers never worry about where the microphone is located? somehow, the entire ship manages to listen to everything that’s spoken, and intelligently pick out particular voices—as well as determining what words should count as commands. while we’re not quite there yet, technology has taken a meaningful stride in that direction, thanks to devices called array microphones.the inglorious legacy of speech recognitionbut first, a story. in late 1993, i was working as a computer graphic artist for a major electrical equipment manufacturer. my friend david was in charge of maintaining the group’s network of macintosh computers, and one day he invited me into his office to see the company’s latest acquisition: a brand new quadra 840av computer. david was grinning proudly because he got to play wit...





interesting thing of the day

last night i did something i hadn’t done in perhaps 20 years, and thought i’d never do again. i’m a bit embarrassed to admit this, but under the circumstances it seemed like the right thing to do. i…um…drank a cup of instant coffee. now i realize this will come as a shock to those who know the seriousness with which i approach coffee. (i have a saying: “you can take your coffee light, but you must never take it lightly.”) but there was a method to my madness, and i hope that a few words of explanation will put my behavior in context. the scene of my transgression was a little-known san francisco institution called audium. it is the world’s only venue devoted exclusively to the performance of pure sound.audium is a unique and highly specialized theatre. the room where the performance takes place is actually a building-within-a-building, completely isolated from outside sounds. about four dozen chairs are arranged in three concentric circles, with 169 speakers of all shapes and sizes located around the room. some speakers are suspended from the ceiling, or hidden behind the walls, under chairs, or beneath the floating floor. you’re completely surrounded by speakers, so all seats are equally good. it’s almost like being in a planetarium, except there’s nothing to see—the performances take place in complete darkness. you come to audium to experience a total immersion in sound.sounding out an ideathe idea for audium was conceived in the late 1950s, when ele...