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interesting thing of the day

as an american, i have always been a bit ambivalent when it comes to units of measurement. i learned units like inches, pints, and pounds first, but all through elementary and secondary school, the metric system (or s.i., système international) was taught, along with dire warnings that we’d better get used to the new measurements because the u.s. was going to be giving up imperial units real soon now. that would have been fine with me, because i’m fluent in meters, liters, and grams too, and they all make more sense to me than their imperial counterparts. (temperature, strangely, is the exception: i can’t seem to switch my brain out of fahrenheit.) the entire world—excluding us wacky americans—has come to the sane conclusion that units of measurement based on outdated and arbitrary standards should be abandoned, and that everything should be based on easy-to-calculate units of ten.everything, that is, except time, the measurement of which requires dealing in inconvenient quantities such as 60, 12, 7, 365, 31, 30, 28, and every so often, 29 and 366. why shouldn’t time be measured in units of 10, 100, and 1000? seconds, hours, weeks, and months, after all, are simply arbitrary divisions of days, seasons, and years. why not divide them up in a decimal-friendly way? and why not choose a system that is inherently immune from stupid computer glitches on the one hand, and free from religious biases on the other? it turns out that there have been numerous proposals to do...





interesting thing of the day

the official interesting thing of the day style guide stipulates that within reason, all measurements expressed in american or british units (pounds, gallons, miles, etc.) should also be given in s.i. (metric) units. we do this partly because many of our readers are located in other parts of the world, and partly because metric units just make so much more sense. and yet, all units of measurement are ultimately arbitrary, and however convenient calculations may be with systems based on the number 10, there are always other ways of looking at things.faster than a speeding snailwhen i was in high school, for example, i heard someone use the expression “furlongs per fortnight,” an odd juxtaposition of measurements that struck me as very funny. i thought it would be interesting to figure out how to express the speed of light in furlongs per fortnight. it turned out to be a huge number, over 1.8 trillion (1,802,617,500,000, to be exact). a furlong is of course defined as 40 rods, a rod being an equally obscure unit of length measuring 16.5 feet. thus you can also express a furlong as 220 yards, 660 feet, 201.2 meters, or 1/8 of a mile. (the only people who normally work with furlongs are those who design race tracks for horses—clearly, an animal whose height is measured in hands needs a special term to describe how far it runs.) a fortnight is 14 days (or nights, as the case may be). so something moving at the speed of one furlong per fortnight (f/f) would be moving very slo...





interesting thing of the day

like most guys, i love tools, especially if they’re expensive and so specialized i’ll only use them on rare occasions. bonus points if they require electricity. my wife, knowing this about me, bought me a groovy little ultrasonic digital laser-guided measuring device as a gift. it even came with a holster. now i can measure the size of any room (even its area and volume, if i need to) in just seconds. morgen’s explanation for why she chose this gift was that she was tired of having to hold one end of a tape measure while i dragged the other end across the room. but i think it may have been that she thought i looked extremely goofy using my standard device for making linear measurements: my forearm.is that a ruler in your pocket?at some point years ago, i picked up the seemingly useless piece of information that an ancient unit of measurement called the cubit was the distance from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger. for an average adult male (at least, average as of a couple of millennia ago), a cubit works out to about 18 inches (45.7cm). cubits were a standard unit of length in sumeria, egypt, and other parts of the middle east long before anyone dreamed of an arbitrary, decimal-based measuring system. cubits were most often used in the context of building; if you have an english bible published before the mid-20th century, it probably lists the measurements of noah’s ark (among other things) in cubits.not long after learning this tidbit, i began discovering h...





interesting thing of the day

last spring when i was in paris, i marveled at all the technological wonders displayed in the musée des arts et métiers. what impressed me the most was some of the very old laboratory apparatus that enabled scientists of centuries past to figure out some very difficult puzzles without the benefit of modern gadgets such as lasers and high-speed digital computers. in particular, i spent a long time studying the equipment jean bernard léon foucault used to measure the speed of light in the mid-1800s.foucault worked in a variety of scientific fields, with his greatest claim to fame being a simple mechanical method for proving the rotation of the earth—what came to be known as foucault’s pendulum. i was even more astounded, though, to see how he solved the extremely vexing problem of making an accurate measurement of the speed of light without so much as an electric motor or a quartz crystal. the display of his lab bench in the museum had not only a printed description but even an animated video presentation. unfortunately, my french wasn’t good enough for me to comprehend exactly how it worked; i could only tell that it had something to do with a rotating mirror, measuring angles, and (most puzzling of all) a tuning fork. later, reading about the equipment in english, i finally understood, and i’ll describe his method in a moment. but first, a bit of history.early estimatesfrom ancient times, astronomers and other thinkers wondered how fast light moved; for a long whil...





interesting thing of the day

while on a business trip in scottsdale, arizona in the early 1990s, i took a walk down the road from the hotel one afternoon and ran into a peculiar-looking place called cosanti. this compound, an official arizona historical site, is a collection of oddly shaped concrete structures, including large domes and apses made from earthen molds. the first thing a visitor notices is the multitude of handmade bronze and ceramic windbells all over the property. these are made in the foundry and workshops on the site and available for sale in the gift shop. but cosanti is much more than a new-agey craft center. it’s the residence and studio of italian architect and artist paolo soleri. as the brochures on the counter explained, cosanti is, among other things, a prototype for a much larger and grander construction project called arcosanti.city in the wildernesslocated about 70 miles (110 km) north of phoenix, arcosanti is called an “urban laboratory.” what soleri has been testing in this laboratory for well over 30 years is a concept he calls arcology, a blending of architecture and ecology. his vision is to build a 25-acre city where 5,000 people can one day live, work, and play—comfortably, sustainably, and in harmony with nature.soleri believes that wastefulness and urban sprawl are among the great evils of the age, and he aims to eliminate these problems with careful design. according to arcology, well-planned urban areas can use space much more efficiently and benefit from d...





interesting thing of the day

as much as i enjoy urban life, there are times when it gets to me. the noise, traffic, crime, and cost of living occasionally make me long for a quiet, affordable home out in the middle of nowhere. at times like these, i like to browse the real estate listings on ebay. i don’t have the means to purchase a rural getaway, but just looking at the ads and daydreaming about them for an hour or two usually puts me in a better mood. i imagine how nice it would be to live on an island somewhere. or perhaps on a small ranch in new mexico. or in a waterfront cottage in oregon. maybe even that little cabin in the mountains of central costa rica. or wait—what’s this?—an abandoned underground missile base? incredible but true. looks a bit unusual, sure, but think of those high ceilings, the nicely insulated walls, the privacy. and for the highest bidder, it can become home.i’m not even talking about just one particular abandoned missile base. that would be a curiosity, but little more. in fact, however, there are dozens of missile silos that have been—or soon will be—renovated for use as private homes, schools, businesses, and other non-military applications. at any given time, astute shoppers can find several such properties on the market in various parts of the united states.where have all the missiles gone?back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the conventional wisdom of the cold war held that the united states could come under nuclear attack by the soviets at any time. ...





interesting thing of the day

for reasons that have never been entirely clear to me, i went through much of my life completely oblivious of certain very important icons of american culture. for example, if you were to ask 100 americans at random to name the best movie of all time, it’s a safe bet that a sizable percentage would say, “citizen kane,” orson welles’s 1941 masterpiece. even those who don’t consider it a cinematic legend have most likely seen it, if for no other reason than curiosity at its fame. but i can’t recall even hearing of the film until about six or seven years ago. morgen and i were watching some old “kids in the hall” videos, and one very funny sketch was based on the assumption that everyone knows about citizen kane. feeling that my cultural education was incomplete, i finally saw the film. i enjoyed it but utterly missed the point, having also somehow failed to accumulate any knowledge of william hearst, on whose life the story was not-so-subtly based.hearst, like the fictional charles foster kane, was a newspaper magnate who aspired to, but never quite got, political power. where kane spent his fortune on a vast estate in florida he called xanadu, hearst built his dream house in san simeon, california—about 200 miles (322km) south of san francisco. hearst had inherited a 250,000-acre (101,172-hectare) ranch on a hill overlooking the ocean, and he used to take his family camping there. eventually he tired of “roughing it” in a small city of tents and in 1919 h...





interesting thing of the day

king ludwig ii of bavaria is one of the most colorful characters in german history. widely regarded as insane, he was certainly a troubled individual and not well suited to the demands of a monarch’s life. although as a ruler he was neither effective nor well-liked, he is remembered fondly today primarily because of his contributions to the future economy of germany: his castles, which attract huge numbers of tourists each year. of the three castles ludwig had built, neuschwanstein was the most famous, with its fairy-tale pseudo-medieval design. but even more ambitious was herrenchiemsee castle.sup-versailles itat the foot of the bavarian alps lies the chiemsee, a large lake with a number of islands. to reach the largest island, herreninsel, you take a ferry from the shore. hidden from view by trees until you reach the island is what appears to be an exact replica of versailles. and in fact, that was just what ludwig was after. he didn’t like the thought of being outdone, and fancied himself as one of the great kings of europe. so he studied versailles carefully in order to make his version as close as possible to the original. herrenchiemsee lacks the two side wings of versailles, has a somewhat different interior layout, and is located in a much more secluded setting. but the overall design of the architecture—and even the choice of artwork, fabrics, and décor inside—reflects the sensibilities of french royalty.it is not always apparent from photographs, but herren...





interesting thing of the day

san jose, california—about an hour’s drive south of san francisco—is the unofficial center of silicon valley. lots of high-tech companies are based in or near san jose, and of the dozens of times i’ve been there, all but one or two were for a technology-related conference of one sort or another. it’s an attractive small city with some excellent museums, parks, and restaurants. but san jose’s biggest tourist attraction was built long before computers made their mark on the area. about five miles (8km) from downtown, the winchester mystery house draws huge crowds almost every day of the year for a simple walking tour of what may be the country’s strangest residential building.everyone in the bay area seems to know about the winchester house, to the extent that billboards advertising the attraction don’t give any information other than its name. when i first moved to northern california several years ago, these signs puzzled me. even after reading a brochure about the house, i didn’t quite grasp what it was all about until i visited for myself. the winchester mystery house is undeniably interesting, though whether it lives up to its hype is another question.our house is a very, very, very strange housefrom the outside, the building appears to be nothing more than a sprawling victorian mansion surrounded by meticulously groomed gardens, soothing fountains, and lots of tour buses. it’s pretty, though not particularly shocking. but the interior of the building a...





interesting thing of the day

before visiting germany a few years ago, i didn’t know very much about german history or culture, and didn’t really care to. i had always had a warm place in my heart for france, and felt my gallic tastes were fundamentally at odds with what little i had grasped of life in germany. as i saw things, the french language was smoother and more mellifluous than german; the french favored wine (as i do) where germans were more fond of beer; the french countryside was organic and endearingly unkempt while rural germany was spotless and well-manicured, and so on. in other words, germany was undoubtedly nice enough, but just not my style.my wife, however, has more overt german roots (even her name, morgen, is spelled like the german word for morning). she had spent some time in germany while in high school, spoke german well, and had the same sort of idealized fondness for germany that i had for france. so in the interest of fostering marital harmony, we humored each other on our first trip to europe together. she agreed to spend some time in provence, and i agreed to spend some time in bavaria. needless to say, this was not a hardship for either of us. we ate and drank well in both countries and collected plenty of interesting stories.where fairy tales come froma recurring theme in the sights we saw in germany—and believe me, i mean this in the best and most complimentary way—was wackiness. i’m not just talking about lederhosen and sauerkraut either, though it has always pu...





interesting thing of the day

i’ve always wondered about the expression “famous for being famous.” it seems to denote someone or something with no intrinsic appeal but with a high level of self-replicating buzz or hype. i can think of examples of famous people and things that seemingly don’t deserve to be famous, but what has always puzzled me is how that buzz about nothing gets started. in other words, how could i become famous for being famous? if it’s true that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, maybe it would be fun to be famous for being famous. not “joe kissell the famous author” or even “joe kissell the famous curator of interesting things” but just “joe kissell the famous.” sure, all things being equal, i’d prefer to be known as smart and talented, but notoriety itself can be useful.one time-tested technique for building up unearned fame is the self-fulfilling prophecy. if you declare something to be the case, loudly enough and persistently enough, you may set in motion a chain reaction that will eventually make it true. this phenomenon is of course well-known in california, even in the quiet rural areas far from the machinery of hollywood fantasy. a case in point: the famous one-log house of garberville, california. no one can say how famous it is, or for what reasons, or among what group of people, but undoubtedly that one word on the sign has convinced hundreds of visitors to pull off the road and have a look rather than just zipping by.big redif you’re driving ...





interesting thing of the day

because of my abiding interests in food, cooking, and unusual stories, i was excited to discover the books of margaret visser. visser achieved literary fame for her books on the culture of eating: much depends on dinner and the rituals of dinner. but the first book of hers i read was the way we are, a collection of short essays on all sorts of interesting things, from the unexpected origins of words to the stories behind everyday customs and cultural artifacts—each one backed by a solid bibliography. hmmmm, a series of short essays on interesting things. what a concept! although i did not deliberately try to emulate visser’s m.o. on this site, it certainly was an implicit inspiration.one of visser’s topics in particular caught my attention: fasting. on a few rare occasions i had fasted for a day at a time, but visser was talking about extended fasts—those lasting more than a few days. according to visser and other sources i consulted, an extended fast has some fascinating characteristics i had never contemplated. for one thing, hunger is supposed to disappear after the first three or four days. the body adapts to the absence of intake and more or less goes about its business without complaining. intriguingly, the mind purportedly becomes more alert, less sleep is needed, and thinking becomes clearer. on the downside (or perhaps not, depending on your point of view), sexual energy and desire diminish. accumulated toxins are also released, which can be healthy for the b...





interesting thing of the day

thanks to kathleen norris, being a benedictine oblate is almost hip these days. norris is the author of the critically received books dakota: a spiritual geography and the cloister walk. both tell the story of a literary new yorker who moved to the great plains and found a spiritual life at—of all places—a benedictine monastery. more than any other person since thomas merton, norris has helped rekindle interest in monastic spirituality among the “thinking crowd.” while i’d like to think that i became a benedictine oblate before reading norris (somehow i think it is morally superior to choose a path before it becomes popular), the truth is that her ruminations on the relevancy of benedictine spirituality for contemporary life were formative in my own choice. i became an oblate of a small benedictine community in oakland, california, in 1999.the life of a saintso what is a benedictine oblate? “benedictine” does not, in this case, refer to the liqueur of the same name (although that liqueur is made by benedictine monks in france). rather, benedictine means an association with the monastic order based on the teachings of st. benedict, himself worthy of a separate column on this web site. st. benedict was born in 480 a.d., 70 years after the fall of rome. he came from an educated, wealthy family but eventually left that life behind to pursue the spiritual life. over time, his reputation as a holy man spread, disciples flocked to him, and he eventually established 12 ...





interesting thing of the day

there’s nothing like a good action film, especially if it involves martial arts. explosions and chases are all well and good, but i like kung fu better. i’ll eagerly watch jackie chan, chow yun fat, or even keanu reeves give the bad guys a whomping using no weapons other than physical skill and a sharp mind. in the real world, though, i find the best kung fu not in the flashy, hollywood-friendly jumps and kicks, but in a discipline your grandmother may well practice: the slow, gentle movements of a martial art called t’ai chi ch’uan.for a westerner, the first challenge in learning about a chinese martial art is figuring out how to pronounce it. there are several systems for representing chinese sounds using the roman alphabet. these varying transliterations have led to numerous spellings (“tai chi chuan,” “t’ai chi ch’uan,” “taijiquan,” etc.) and pronunciations. i’ll leave the details for another article, but if you want to avoid ambiguity it’s best to use the pronunciation “tai ji,” because the chi in “t’ai chi” is not at all the same thing as ch’i (or qi), a chinese word usually translated as “internal energy.”supreme softnesst’ai chi is based on the principles of taoism, and its invention dates back about a thousand years. according to legend, a taoist monk named chang san feng was watching a crane trying to catch a snake. every time the bird struck with its beak, the snake would gently slide out of the way, and this defense wa...





interesting thing of the day

i’m not what you’d call a “fitness freak.” i’ve spent enough time in gyms to know how the machines work and experience the sensation of building up a sweat, and i like to do t’ai chi. i also live on a san francisco hill, so i get an aerobic jolt just walking home from the subway. but working out for its own sake is not really my idea of a good time. my disenfranchisement with exercise goes way back. all throughout school, i was the kid who got picked on in phys. ed. classes—the last one chosen for teams, the slowest in races, the kid who couldn’t do a chin-up if his life depended on it. the shared trauma of phys. ed. embarrassments from high school strengthened my bond with my wife. when we were first dating, i asked her how she felt about exercise, and she replied, “my motto is: ‘no pain, no pain.’” a woman after my own heart.a few years ago i stumbled across an ad that made me laugh: it was one of those charles atlas comic-book ads from the 1930s. you know the basic idea: the skinny 97-pound weakling gets sand kicked in his face at the beach, but he can’t stand up to the bully so he loses the girl. then he sends for mr. atlas’s program and one frame later, he’s admiring his new body in the mirror. he goes back to the beach, decks the bully, and gets the girl. the ad then goes on to show a photo of a smiling charles atlas with the caption “the world’s most perfectly developed man.” the reason i laughed at the ad was not just that it reflec...





interesting thing of the day

i love friday mornings. it used to be that i looked forward to fridays simply because they were the last work day of the week. then i began working for an employer with the wonderful tradition of providing free bagels and cream cheese for the entire company every friday morning. they were good bagels, too. not only was this a great incentive to get to work on time, it put me in a proper frame of mind to be productive and happy for the rest of the day. ever since then, i’ve carried this custom with me to other places i’ve worked, and even when “work” means my home office, i make an effort to get a fresh bagel on friday mornings. it’s just the right thing to do.a hole in the storythere are, by actual count, umpteen bajillion web sites that proudly recount the history of the bagel—that is to say, a lovely and plausible story that explains everything except the crucial points. the story says that bagels were invented in 1683 by an anonymous jewish baker in austria. king jan sobieski (a.k.a. king john iii) of poland had just saved austria from a turkish invasion, and because of his legendary equestrian skills, bread in the shape of a stirrup (or bügel in german) was seen as an appropriate way to honor him. that’s wonderful and all, but the real mystery, which no one seems to have solved, is who came up with the idea to boil bagels before baking them, which is what gives them their characteristic texture both inside and out. (depending on who you ask, bagels should b...





interesting thing of the day

in september, 1848, the rutland & burlington railroad was expanding its line across vermont. in order to keep the tracks as straight as possible, construction workers first had to remove a great deal of stone. the foreman of one group of men undertaking this difficult task was phineas p. gage. twenty-five-year-old gage was intelligent, kind, and well-liked. he was also quite athletic and agile, and impressed his employers as being exceptionally efficient at his work.gage was an expert at removing rock using explosives. the procedure was to drill into the rock, fill the hole halfway with explosive powder, insert a fuse, and then cover the powder with sand. the layer of sand was necessary to direct the force of the blast into the rock, rather than out the top of the hole, and the sand had to be packed down by pounding it with a specially designed iron tamping rod. gage had a custom-made rod that weighed 13 pounds (5.9kg) and measured 3 1/2 feet (1.1m) long, with a diameter of 1 1/4 inches (3.2cm) at the bottom, tapering to a dull point at the top.sticks and stones may break my bonesat 4:30 p.m. on september 13, gage was preparing a charge, and apparently failed to notice that it had not yet been cushioned with sand before he began tamping it. when the iron rod scraped against the rock, it created a spark that ignited the powder. the resulting explosion propelled the rod out of the hole, through gage’s left cheek, and out the top of his skull. the rod landed nearly 100 feet (2...





interesting thing of the day

it’s all about dedication. in the course of my research for interesting thing of the day, i have sometimes gone to great lengths to ensure the accuracy and completeness of the articles i write. if that means drinking absinthe or eating doughnuts or trudging through paris museums, well, these are the sacrifices a responsible journalist must make. i even enlisted my wife’s assistance to undertake a tedious and grueling muffin-baking experiment, subjecting myself to untold nutritional perils to be sure that you, gentle reader, receive the most reliable information. and indeed, i now feel qualified to hold forth on the culinary mystery of muffin tops.do you know the muffin, man?muffin tops are, as everyone knows, truly the upper crust of muffindom. most people prefer the top to the stump—at least when you’re talking about those jumbo-sized, coffee-shop muffins, as opposed to the kind you make from a mix in your kitchen. but this fact suggests several questions. why is the top so much better? how does one go about making a muffin with the kind of top beloved by seinfeld partisans? and how can one obtain a high-quality top without wasting a perfectly good but less appealing stump? these were the questions i set out to answer.in my book, the ideal muffin has a top that protrudes significantly over the sides of the cup in which it was baked, thus looking rather like a giant mushroom. this large surface area is exposed directly to the hot, dry air of the oven and therefore bec...





interesting thing of the day

many years ago i read an article in which the author jokingly referred to something called the “international stop continental drift society.” believe it or not, iscds was an actual organization in the early 1980s that produced a tongue-in-cheek newsletter for geologists. if it were still around, i’d join in a second: stopping continental drift, like any number of other futile and pointless endeavors, is a cause i could really get behind. besides, given the complex subject matter, i’d probably learn a lot more from a humorous article than a dry textbook.in our family, i’m the science guy; my wife tends more toward arts and literature. but she also took a college class that covered plate tectonics, a subject i knew very little about. it gave me a warm feeling in my heart to hear her excitedly talking about continental drift and what happens when the edge of one tectonic plate dives below another one. that’s the kind of stuff we should find interesting, especially since we get plenty of firsthand experience with seismic activity here in san francisco. but one topic from morgen’s class stuck out as being particularly interesting: the theory of mantle convection.passing the mantlethe mantle is the thick layer of rock below the crust of the earth. it’s not quite molten, but it’s softer than the crust, and because of the enormous pressure it’s under, it behaves almost like a very thick liquid, with the tectonic plates “floating” on top. the big question that...





the dvorak keyboard controversy / chasing qwerty

the qwerty keyboard layout is weird and hard to learn. a competitor, the dvorak layout, may be superior, but arguments on both sides are so full of hype and bias that it's hard to determine who to believe.