Doble Steam Cars

A 1924 Doble Model E at the Henry Ford Museum

The steam engine’s last stand

My current car is a hybrid, and if current trends continue, I imagine any future cars I buy will be fully electric. But a century ago, I might have been tempted by one of the last steam-powered cars…at least, if I’d been extremely wealthy. I’m speaking of Doble steam cars, designed and manufactured by Abner Doble and his three brothers. On the plus side, they required very little maintenance, accelerated rapidly, handled smoothly, had low emissions, and were virtually silent. On the minus side…pretty much everything else.

Fill It Up…with Water

In the early years of the 20th century, some cars were powered by steam engines, based on the same tried-and-true technology that had already powered locomotives for a long time. The newfangled internal combustion engines rapidly stole the show, though. Unlike steam engines, which sometimes took as long as a half hour to heat up before the car could even move, internal combustion engines started immediately. They didn’t require the driver to stop every hundred miles to refill a water tank, and they generally had fewer mechanical problems. By around 1910, the only major steam-powered car still in production was the Stanley Steamer—and its days were numbered. The battle had been decided.

Not everyone was convinced, though. Abner Doble was a San Francisco native who had moved to Massachusetts in 1910 to attend M.I.T. He dropped out after just one semester and, along with his three brothers, began working on improving the design of steam engines for cars. Doble’s first major innovation was extending the steam car’s range. All existing steam-powered cars lost a lot of water and had to be refilled frequently. Doble made innovative changes to the condenser system that recirculated water; in so doing he increased the car’s range to as much as 1500 miles (2400km) with a full 24-gallon (91-liter) water tank. (Of course, that was only the distance it could travel without a water refill. It used kerosene to heat the water, and the fuel mileage per gallon was not great, but it was still similar to that of conventional cars of that era.)

Full Steam Ahead

After building a couple of prototype vehicles, the Doble brothers moved to Detroit in 1915, where they set up shop as the General Engineering Company to design and build steam-powered cars. Doble’s next challenge was to solve the long start-up problem. He did this by using a flash-steam generator rather than heating a huge tank of water, and adding ignition and carburetor systems similar to those used by internal combustion engines. With these improvements, his car could start in as little as 30 seconds. This design also had the side-effect of reducing leaks and making the steam engine safer. The Dobles began advertising their car—the Doble Series C, also known as the Doble-Detroit—long before they’d worked out the rest of the design and manufacturing issues. Although the Doble-Detroit got a lot of press and generated thousands of orders, very few were built. (Some sources say only 11 were manufactured, others as many as 80—but in any case, it was just a handful.) Doble blamed his company’s failure to produce cars on steel shortages caused by World War I, but ongoing engineering difficulties were the real problem. By 1918, the Detroit operation had shut down.

In 1921, after the death of John Doble, Abner and his two remaining brothers moved back to California to give the car business another go, this time as Doble Steam Motors. They solved most of the outstanding engineering problems and added several more innovations, increasing the car’s acceleration and improving its reliability. Unlike other steam cars—and most internal-combustion-engine cars—their new Series E car could start almost instantly even in freezing weather, and could go from 0 to 75 miles per hour (120kph) in a respectable 10 seconds. Because steam engines produce a great deal of torque at almost any speed, the car required no transmission, clutch, or gear shifting. And because the kerosene fuel was burned at very high temperatures but low pressure, almost all the waste carbon was consumed, while certain other common pollutants were never generated in the first place.

Driven to Perfection

And yet, for all those innovations, Doble cars were still hindered by two major problems. First was the price: the chassis alone cost $9,500; add the body, and the price nearly doubled. In the 1920s, that sort of price made the car a luxury item that only the extremely wealthy could afford. The other problem was Abner Doble himself: he was such a perfectionist that he was seldom willing to stop tinkering and tweaking and actually release an automobile for sale.

The first Doble Series E was sold in 1924, and Doble Steam Motors continued to manufacture steam-powered cars—very slowly—for the next seven years. The total number produced before the company went out of business in 1931 has been reported variously as 24, 42, or 43. A few of those cars are still on the road, having racked up hundreds of thousands of miles. But despite the cars’ reliability, Doble simply couldn’t compete against the cheaper mass-produced internal-combustion-engine cars.

Today most people think of the steam engine (an external combustion engine) as a quaint artifact of history, but every few years or so, someone tries to come up with a new spin on using steam to power cars. Given current trends, I have little hope of seeing a practical, fuel-efficient steam car in the future. But I have to admire the Doble brothers’ dedication to overcoming engineering problems and making the best steam car they could given the technology of the time and the resources at hand.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on September 1, 2006.

Image credit: NAParish [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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Author: Joe Kissell

Mystery Park

Aerial view of Jungfrau Park

The theme park that aliens built

As the years have passed since I started this site back in 2003, I’ve seen lots of interesting things come and go. I wrote about quite a few things that were interesting at the time but which, for one reason or another, just aren’t that interesting anymore. But as I was reviewing some old articles, I found something surprising: an interesting thing I’d written off long ago that somehow managed to come back to life: Switzerland’s Jungfrau Park, originally known as Mystery Park. (Jungfrau is the German word for “virgin,” and the meaning of that name in this context is…a mystery to me.)

Back in 2001, a Swiss friend of mine told me excitedly about a new theme park that was under construction near the city of Interlaken. He sent me a magazine article about it, and even went so far as to buy me a 10-Franc stock certificate for the park, giving me some trivial sliver of ownership in this hot new property. For years afterward, Mystery Park was on my list of things to write about, but for one reason or another it never managed to percolate up to the top of the list until December 2006. Which is a pity: the park closed—permanently, it appeared—on November 19, 2006, due to a shortage of visitors (and, therefore, money). At least I no longer had to wonder how much that stock was worth! So I wrote about it, but the story would turn out to have another chapter.

The Gods Must Be Crazy

Mystery Park was the brainchild of Erich von Däniken, a Swiss author perhaps best known for his 1968 book Chariots of the Gods, which alleged that aliens visited Earth thousands of years ago, bringing with them the technology needed to create such artifacts as the Nazca lines, the Antikythera mechanism, the pyramids in Egypt, and the statues on Easter Island. Although the book was popular, no one with any scientific credentials took it seriously, and von Däniken was immediately pigeonholed as, shall we say, a fringe theorist. (On the other hand, the book did provide the inspiration for a number of science-fiction movies and TV shows, including Battlestar Galactica. So clearly some good came of it!)

The lack of credibility didn’t stop von Däniken from authoring more than two dozen additional books and selling tens of millions of copies worldwide. After a few decades as a bestselling author, von Däniken had some cash to play with, and he decided to design a theme park that would explore the world’s great mysteries. Not just any mysteries, of course, but those for which von Däniken implied the answer “aliens did it.” The park, built on the site of a former military air base, would be an interactive, hands-on way to spread his ideas in the guise of history, science, and entertainment. Planning began in 1997, and Mystery Park welcomed its first visitors on May 24, 2003.

One Ring

The park, which was tiny as theme parks go, consisted mainly of seven pavilions or “theme worlds” arranged in a ring. Each pavilion focused on one particular ancient culture and its mysteries. The Vimanas pavilion explored flying machines said to be used in north Indian temples. In the Maya pavilion, visitors learned about the Mayan timekeeping systems, which von Däniken believed to track the calendars of other worlds. The Orient pavilion examined the construction of the Great Pyramid of Giza, while Megastones looked at Stonehenge. There was also a Nazca pavilion, a Contact pavilion about cargo cults, and a Challenge pavilion dealing with space travel to Mars and beyond. An elevated sphere in the center of the park served as an observation tower.

Although von Däniken repeatedly asserted that the park’s goal was to provide questions, not answers, he certainly tried to steer visitors toward accepting his interpretations of things. He helped design the attractions, sold his books at the park, maintained an office on the premises, and regularly interacted with visitors. Critics pointed to his well-known biases as a reason the park didn’t draw more people; even to the extent that some of the exhibits were reasonably objective, skeptical would-be visitors frequently assumed they’d be getting a full dose of UFO mania and little more.

After trying unsuccessfully to stave off creditors for months, the park eventually declared bankruptcy and closed. Analysts blamed everything from an underperforming stock market to the fact that the exhibits never changed, discouraging repeat visits. But a large part of the reason for the park’s failure seems to have been that there’s only so much to say about von Däniken’s theories and so many people who will listen to them, no matter how entertaining the multimedia presentations may be for their kids.

Aliens vs. Zombies

I assumed that was that, but amazingly, the property was purchased by a company called New Inspiration Inc., renamed Junkfrau Park, and reopened for the summer 2009 season, with the fairly modest goal of attracting 500 visitors per day (compared to the 500,000 annual visitors the park had initially projected). It has been open every summer since then; a children’s area called Mysty Land is open year-round. The core of the park, now referred to as Mystery World, appears to be pretty much the same as it was in 2006, and despite the park’s new ownership, it still features monthly lectures by von Däniken and continues to sell his books in the gift shop, so one thing that clearly has not changed (for better or worse) is his influence.

I’ve never visited Mystery Park myself—and haven’t read any of von Däniken’s books—all my opinions have been formed second-hand. (The TripAdvisor reviews are worth reading.) To be sure, I’ve got to give props to anyone with the resources, vision, and influence to create his own theme park. As for the content, what can I say? I liked The X-Files as much as the next person; conspiracy theories and stories of alien visitors are nothing if not entertaining. But I enjoy those stories as fiction, and I hope I know enough to separate entertainment from reality. On the other hand, I would have given Mystery Park a 0% chance of resurrection, and still can’t quite believe it. Was the park’s comeback the work of aliens? I haven’t yet found a more plausible explanation.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on December 1, 2006.

Image credit: Andrew Bossi [CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

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Author: Joe Kissell

Take Control of Siri

Take Control of Siri cover

If you have any Apple device made in recent years—Mac, iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, Apple TV, or HomePod—you’ve undoubtedly used Siri at least occasionally. Apple’s voice-powered digital assistant gives you an easy way to control your music, take notes, set reminders, and do loads of other tasks on the fly. But few of us, myself included, have ever spent enough time learning everything Siri can do and how to become a true Siri pro. But my colleague, Scholle McFarland, has done just that. And she shares her wealth of Siri knowledge in her new book Take Control of Siri.

You may use Siri for just a handful of things, but with a bit of coaching, you can discover dozens of useful, fun, and time-saving ways Siri can help you. This book digs into all of it, from light-hearted (getting Siri to tell you jokes) to serious (using Siri to summon emergency help)—and everything in between.

Need more convincing? Scholle has produced a series of 10 videos demonstrating many of Siri’s capabilities, and you can watch them right now for free. Those videos, of course, only scratch the surface of what’s in the book, but they give you an excellent taste of what Siri can do for you.

This book, like all Take Control titles, comes as an ebook, and you can download any combination of formats—PDF, EPUB, and/or Kindle’s Mobipocket format—so you can read it on pretty much any computer, smartphone, tablet, or ebook reader. The cover price is $14.99, but as an Interesting Thing of the Day reader, you can buy it this week for 30% off, or just $10.49.

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Author: Joe Kissell

The Legend of Deolinda Correa

A shrine to Deolinda Correa

Unofficial saint of the desert

Tour guides, docents, and professional speakers of all sorts love to ask their audiences questions to which the answers are obvious. They do this in order to “encourage participation,” but I always find these exchanges patronizing. “Who can tell me the title of the seminar you’re currently attending? That’s right! Communicating Clearly. Now if we’re not communicating clearly, how are we communicating? Anyone? Yes! Unclearly!” Ugh. So I don’t like to encourage this sort of behavior. If you have facts to relate to someone, then relate the facts. If you can’t ask genuinely useful questions, find some other way of involving your audience.

So there we were in a van in southern Argentina with seven other tourists, a driver, and a chipper guide who was eager to practice both her English and her professional guide skills. We were a captive audience in the only vehicle for many miles on one of the narrow highways that stretch across Patagonia. It was going to be a long ride, and we did pay a lot of money to be there, so we tried to make the best of it. “Who can tell me what meteorological feature this part of Patagonia is best known for?” she asked. Silence. We all knew. She knew we knew. No one wanted to play.

I sighed and decided to throw out the obvious answer just to take the pressure off my fellow tourists, and make the guide feel better about her job. “Wind,” I said. The guide smiled condescendingly with the look that means, in any language or culture, “Not the answer I was looking for.” Dang it. “Well,” she said, trying to reassure me that I hadn’t said something completely boneheaded, “it is indeed very windy here.” And she went on to talk about how many windmills were being installed, what a large portion of the nation’s electrical needs they hoped wind would provide in a few years, and so on. But this was all a diversion. She was looking for a particular answer to her question, and after asking a second time with no response, she filled it in for us. “It’s incredibly dry here.” Well, yes, of course—we knew that. We were confused because it was too obvious. Our guide went on to tell us how very few centimeters of rain the Chubut province received each year, how only the hardiest plants and animals could survive, how heavy pollution in other parts of the world was leading to dramatic climate changes here, and so on. This was all interesting in a vague, academic sense, but not what I really cared to listen to at that time. As I would later discover, however, stories involving thirst figure prominently in this arid region’s popular mythology.

Shrines of the Times

As we drove all over Chubut province—and again in each of the regions we visited—we repeatedly passed small roadside shrines, often in the remotest and unlikeliest locations. We always zipped by too quickly for me to get a good look or take a picture, but something told me there must be a story behind them. Finally someone asked what they were. Our guide said, with a mildly embarrassed tone, “Those are shrines or monuments to Deolinda Correa.” The story she then related is one she clearly did not believe in herself, but equally clearly, a great many other Argentineans did.

As legend has it, in the 1830s, María Antonia Deolinda Correa lived in Argentina’s San Juan province—an area at the foot of the Andes well north of Patagonia. Her husband, Bustos, was taken by force and drafted into the private army of Juan Facundo Quiroga, a regional gaucho warlord. Deolinda was so distraught that she set out on foot, with her newborn son in her arms, to follow her husband. After days of walking through the desert without food or water, she finally collapsed and died. Days later, passing mule drivers found her body; amazingly, her infant son was still alive and nursing at her breast. The men buried her, and having found the name Correa on a pendant she was wearing, labeled her tomb “Difunta Correa,” difunta being a word that literally means “defunct” but is more commonly used to mean “dead.”

Birth of a Saint

Years later, as her story spread, the locals began to think of her as a saint who had given her life for her child. And so, in this predominantly Catholic nation, people in need began to pray to her. When one man’s prayers were miraculously answered, he built a small chapel to honor Deolinda. Shortly thereafter, someone brought an offering of water to this chapel, symbolizing the divine relief from thirst. Soon, small roadside shrines began to appear all over the country, some of them littered with hundreds of bottles of water brought either in supplication or in thanks. Deolinda Correa has become the unofficial regional patron saint of travelers, farmers, and all those whose lives or livelihoods depend on a precarious supply of water. The monument built on the site where Deolinda is said to have died is now a large sanctuary—a hilltop where 17 chapels, and numerous smaller shrines, pay her honor. Over half a million pilgrims visit this site in the small town of Vallecito each year.

Deolinda was never canonized by the Catholic church, which regards the entire tale as nothing more than a superstition. There is little evidence of Deolinda’s existence and even less of the supposed miracle. The legend also does not say what happened to Deolinda’s son. But none of this weakens the beliefs of thousands of people who claim that Difunta Correa’s intervention resulted in miraculously answered prayers.

Travelers do not often cross the deserts and plains of Argentina on foot these days. But I can easily imagine a parched and weary soul, stranded far from food and water, who stumbles upon a shrine to Deolinda Correa and drinks from a water bottle left as an offering. Whether or not this ever happens, I like to think that in death—or even as the figment of someone’s imagination—Difunta Correa now has the power to save countless thirsty travelers.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on January 26, 2005.

Image credit: Piergiorgio Rossi [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Author: Joe Kissell

Quiet Parties

A silent disco

Silent night out on the town

On our way home from the theater after seeing an X-Men movie back in the mid-2000s, Morgen and I kept finding ourselves surrounded by unusually noisy people—in the lobby, on the street corner, in the subway station. We were attempting to discuss the film, but we could barely hear each other. Every time this happened, I tried to move away to a quieter spot; noise has its place, but when I’m trying to think or carry on a conversation, I prefer relative silence. As we reviewed some of the fictional mutants and their super powers, I said, “If I were a mutant, they’d call me Silento. My super power would be the ability to create a large bubble of silence all around me.” In my book, that beats being able to throw balls of flame or have metal claws pop out of my hands.

I have always been baffled at the fact that people so frequently go to noisy parties, bars, clubs, and restaurants with the apparent intention of getting to know each other or spend quality time together. How is that supposed to work? How can you have a worthwhile conversation with someone when you must yell over loud music, not to mention all those other people yelling their own conversations at each other? Perhaps my telepathic powers are insufficiently developed, but as an ordinary human, it seems more sensible to me that if you want to talk to someone, you’d go to a place where you can hear and be heard.

Shortly after the episode I recounted above, I found out about a phenomenon that had recently begun to catch on: quiet parties, where the only rule was “no talking.” I wrote about it here, explaining what a delightful idea it sounded like. I’ll tell you about it again, but first a spoiler: that trend pretty much evaporated, and the term “quiet party” now means something very different from what it originally did…though it’s still kind of interesting.

These Go to Zero

The idea for quiet parties (in the original sense) came from two New Yorkers, artist Paul Rebhan and musician Tony Noe, who got frustrated trying to find a bar where they could have a quiet conversation in 2002. (Sounds familiar!) They invented the quiet party partly for practical reasons and partly as a sort of participatory performance art. Despite—or perhaps because of—New York’s reputation for ubiquitous noise, the parties were an instant hit.

Loud music, yelling, and cell phone use were prohibited at quiet parties; sometimes there’d be soft music in the background and sometimes not. Whispering was allowed in designated areas, and occasionally, quiet parties even permitted the exchange of text messages and email. But on the whole, participants relied on written notes, mime, and body language to convey their messages. Once partygoers got over the initial discomfort of writing instead of talking, they often found that passing notes makes was easier and less intimidating to approach strangers. And it was often quite entertaining: there was no rule against giggling or gasping.

You Had Me at “___”

You’ll notice, of course, that I speak of quiet parties in the past tense. At one time, there was a Quiet Party website listing quiet parties that were officially sanctioned and promoted by Rehban and Noe. They took place at venues that had been specially reserved for the evening, with hosts who explained how it works, pass out pens and paper, and enforce the “no talking” rule. These events, which were held around the world, tended to attract mainly singles; those looking for love at a quiet party were said to be practicing silent dating.

But for whatever reason, this meme ran its course, the website went away, and Rehban and Noe went on to do other things. Although there’s nothing stopping anyone from holding a quiet party of that type now, at some point, the term “quiet party” quietly adopted an entirely different meaning. What that term—and others like it, including silent party and silent disco—typically means now is a dance party where DJs play music through wireless headphones worn by each guest, as opposed to through loudspeakers. So a visitor walking into the room without the right headphones would hear very little, while each participant can have the music as soft or loud as they prefer.

I guess the option to turn one’s own music down or even off is nice, as is the opportunity to engage in conversation with someone else if they’re willing to do the same. (If not, then it’s just yelling over both people’s headphones—hardly an improvement!) But new-style “quiet” parties, emphasizing as they do constant audio stimulation and very much deemphasizing actual communication, are very nearly the opposite of what I loved about the original quiet party idea. What a pity.

I think I can safely say that no one has ever had to yell to be heard at one of my parties, but I’d certainly be game to try complete silence—I mean, without the headphones. Perhaps one day in the future, if truly silent parties make a resurgence and become the norm, the world will no longer need Silento. I’ll be only too happy to hang up my cape.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on June 7, 2006.

Image credit: Dashanchia [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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Author: Joe Kissell

The Swedish Ship Götheborg

The East Indiaman Götheborg

Rebuilding history

In 1731 the Swedish East India Company was founded to pursue trade in southeast Asia, exchanging Swedish timber, tar, iron, and copper for silver, tea, porcelain, and silk. Over the course of its 82-year history, it launched 38 ships on 132 expeditions. One of those ships was the Götheborg.

The Götheborg had made three voyages to China when it made its final approach to its home port, Göteborg, on September 12, 1745. After 30 months at sea and within sight of its ultimate destination, for reasons still unknown, the Götheborg ran aground and began to sink. Luckily, the entire crew was rescued by the numerous bystanders who had gathered to watch the ship’s entry into port. However, the ship’s precious cargo—estimated to be worth as much as the national budget—was lost, and the ship sank to the ocean floor.

Shaping the Timbers

The Götheborg was largely forgotten until 1984, when divers began reexamining the wreck and found remnants of the ship under layers of clay. Their discoveries kindled public interest in the ship, and inspired a plan to build a replica ship that would once again sail to China.

In 1993, a new organization called the Swedish East India Company was formed to make this plan a reality. Construction on the ship began in 1995, when the keel was laid, and continued through the ship’s first sea trial in May 2005.

Throughout the process, great care was taken to emulate the shipbuilding techniques that formed the first Götheborg, with a few key exceptions. While the exterior of the ship was built using the classic 18th-century materials of oak, pine, spruce, and elm, the interior of the ship is much more 21st century. Due to modern regulations requiring the inclusion of a propulsion system, the new Götheborg had to be fitted with two engines and two main generators plus an emergency generator, although its default power source is the wind. In addition, the ship has been equipped with five watertight steel bulkheads to comply with international seaworthiness standards.

Slow Boat to China

On October 2, 2005, the East Indiaman Götheborg (as it is officially called) set sail from Sweden, headed toward Shanghai, China by way of Spain, Brazil, South Africa, Australia, and Indonesia. The ship reached Shanghai on August 29, 2006, for a two-month stay before returning to Sweden.

Since that initial trip to China, the Götheborg has made many voyages to other parts of Europe (including Scandinavia, the Baltic Sea, the Netherlands, France, Germany, and the UK), completing nine expeditions in ten years. When it is in port, whether at home in Sweden or while traveling, it welcomes visitors on board for tours, and has hosted more than a million people over the years.

The Götheborg project has given many people a chance to see history first-hand, and to experience what life was like so long ago. But more than that, it has combined the strength of tradition with the innovation of the present—a rare and valuable thing to behold.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on September 13, 2006.

Image credit: Fred J [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Author: Morgen Jahnke


Personal space diagram

The study of personal space

In 1966 anthropologist Edward T. Hall coined the term proxemics to describe the study of how people perceive the proximity of others. Hall’s work was inspired by an animal study conducted by Swiss zoologist Heini Hediger, who found that animals maintained various boundaries depending on whether they were preparing to escape, to attack, to communicate with members of another species, or relating to a member of their own species.

Based on these insights, and after conducting his own research, Edward Hall developed the idea of a set of expanding circles, called reaction bubbles, that described how humans manage the space around them. The innermost circle he identified as Intimate space, reserved for those we are closest to, and usually measuring 6 to 18 inches (15 to 45cm) in radius. The next level up he dubbed Personal space, the distance we are comfortable maintaining with close friends, about 1.5 to 4 feet (0.5 to 1.2m). He used the term Social space to indicate our preferred proximity to acquaintances, about 5–12 feet (1.5–3.6m), and Public space for the distance we need for public speaking, 12–25 feet or more (3.6–7.6m).

This sounds very specific, but Hall himself acknowledged that these distances vary from culture to culture. While those from less-populated countries, or countries where individualism and privacy are highly valued, are more comfortable with larger spaces between themselves and others, in other cultures maintaining what is considered excessive distance can be perceived as rude or unfriendly.

As this video shows, Hall’s work on proxemics goes beyond reaction bubbles, but it is his idea of how we manage the space around us that has had the most long-lasting effect on popular culture.

Don’t Stand So Close To Me

Because in certain situations it is not always possible to keep our preferred distance from others—for example in crowded subway cars or elevators—we learn coping mechanisms to deal with our discomfort. Psychologists observe that individuals in these circumstances often avoid eye contact as a way to minimize the forced intimacy of close quarters. Another strategy we employ, according to psychologist Robert Sommer, is to dehumanize those around us, imagining them as inanimate objects in our personal space instead of the more anxiety-producing fellow creatures they are.

I think these strategies are in play in most large cities and in other situations where it’s is too threatening to acknowledge the close presence of others. My own discomfort is assuaged by passing others anonymously on a crowded sidewalk, or keeping to myself in a cramped airplane cabin. Of course, the illusion of space is shattered when I’m approached on the street, or when the passenger behind me starts kicking my chair. At these moments I feel my blood pressure rise, my stomach clench, and my temper grow short. While this reaction might be appropriate in truly life-threatening situations, nothing is at stake most of the time. Maybe knowing that I am responding only to a perceived threat to my safety will help me to remain calm the next time this happens. Then again, maybe not.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on February 15, 2007.

Image credit: Jean-Louis Grall [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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Author: Morgen Jahnke

Online Lost-and-Found Services

A lost-and-found box

A better way to get your stuff back?

If you go to a coffee shop and leave your glasses, keys, or notebook on the table, chances are some honest citizen will turn the item in at the counter, and as long as you know where you left it, you can return later to claim it. Larger stores, stadiums, concert halls, theme parks and so on typically have central lost-and-found departments that serve the same purpose. But again, you must have at least a general idea of where an item was lost, and you can only hope that whoever found it didn’t decide just to keep it. (Lost-and-found departments are unlikely to have your lost camera, laptop, or wallet—at least not with the money still in it.) Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a general, all-purpose lost-and-found service that didn’t require you to know where your valuables went missing? And wouldn’t it be nice if there were an incentive for the finder to return your lost item rather than just pocketing it? These are precisely the ideas behind several online services.

The Carrot and the Sticker

In general, the programs require you to purchase tags, stickers, or labels of some kind and affix them to the things you want to keep track of. The person who finds your missing item can either call a toll-free number or visit a website and enter the ID number on the label. Depending on the service, the finder may then be informed of a reward for returning the item—and that may be one that you supply, or one that the service provides (paid for by your subscription fees). At this point, some services simply send you a message from the finder—allowing you to make your own arrangements for getting the item back. In other cases, the service arranges for anonymous return of the item (typically at your expense) and delivery of the reward to the finder.

Unfortunately, even the promise of a reward may not result in the return of items that have been stolen rather than simply misplaced. However, if stolen goods are later recovered by the police, the ID tags provide a way for them to get in touch with the rightful owner and arrange for return of the goods. When police confiscate stolen property and can’t determine who owns it, it is often sold at auction.

The idea for online lost-and-found services actually came from a very successful program called the National Bike Registry (NBR) that is endorsed by many police departments (and recently merged with another bike recovery service called 529 Garage. Like more general lost-and-found services, NBR provides you with a tamper-resistant ID label for your bike which includes a URL and a toll-free phone number. Since missing bikes are much more likely to have been stolen than lost, though, it is rare for anyone other than law enforcement officials to use the service.

Fringe Benefits

Though not their main purpose, there is reason to believe ID labels provide a deterrent to theft. Because the labels are tamper-resistant, they cannot be removed cleanly, making resale of stolen goods more difficult. Although these lost-and-found services are still small enough not to have aroused much interest in the insurance industry, the potential certainly exists for reduced premiums for people who use the ID tags, as they decrease the probability that an insurer would have to pay the cost of a missing item.

Lost-and-found services offer labels in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, and materials to be used with almost any imaginable product. For example, ReturnMe sells skinny labels that can fit unobtrusively on eyeglasses and sunglasses, as well as metal key tags, luggage tags, and even pet tags. The presence of the tags on your stuff help to ensure you don’t suffer for forgetting to pick up that umbrella or briefcase when you step off the train or out of the restaurant.

Since I originally wrote about these services back in 2003, there’s been a lot of change in the industry. BoomerangIt, at one time the largest online lost-and-found service, changed ownership in 2016 and currently has only a minimally functional website that claims it’s in the process of being renovated. Meanwhile, competitor StuffBak shut down in 2005, and its former customers are now being served by ReturnMe, which appears to be leading this category at the moment. Although Yellowtag is still operating in the U.K., MicroTrax (a U.S. company) and Trackitback (a Canadian company) are apparently no more. Or…maybe they’re just lost. If you see a lost-and-found company on the sidewalk, be sure to check for a tag. There could be a reward if you return it!

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on May 22, 2003, and again in a slightly revised form on January 9, 2005.

Image credit: Paul Gorbould [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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Author: Joe Kissell


Silhouettes of people dancing

Getting grown-ups back into their bodies

There’s an old joke that I’ve heard attributed, in one form or another, to numerous religious groups. It goes: “Why do Baptists (or Methodists, or Mennonites, or Jews, or whatever) prohibit premarital sex? Because it could lead to dancing.” The implication, obviously, is that the group’s taboo against dancing is so strong that it overshadows the moral principle that gave rise to it in the first place; dancing becomes not just a potential path to evil but an evil in and of itself. One of the theological views that sometimes motivates this position is that the body (or “flesh”) is inherently sinful or corrupt, and must be ruthlessly subjugated to the purer values of the spirit. This was certainly the view of the religious tradition in which I grew up. Any activity that even suggested carnal pleasure outside strictly delimited boundaries was an immoral concession to humanity’s fallen nature.

Although this sort of thinking may be an extreme example, it’s indicative of a broader and older cultural trend, which some people refer to as the “mind-body split.” Whether you trace this trend back to Cartesian dualism, the early days of Christianity, or some other source, it amounts to a belief that the body is somehow an ontologically separate entity from the mind (or “soul” or “spirit”). Perhaps the two are even in competition or conflict with each other. Even if, as adults, we recognize that by implicitly accepting this split we’ve become disintegrated and unbalanced, it’s difficult to reprogram ourselves to recover that sense of being a single, unified whole. A practice called InterPlay exists to encourage that process by helping people to rediscover and express one of their most basic, primal needs: play.

Play Time

Children, of course, have no trouble playing, and kids seem to engage in play with their whole beings—what InterPlayers refer to as “mindful presence.” That, in a nutshell, is what InterPlay seeks to restore to adults who have lost all sense of how easy it is to have fun. As we grow older, we tend to take ourselves more and more seriously. Although that is useful in some respects, InterPlay is a reminder that we never outgrow the need for play.

What does InterPlay mean by “play”? Not the things adults usually mean—sports, board games, gambling, and so on. In a sense, play can be anything that’s enjoyable, but some of the specific activities that make up InterPlay are deep breathing, telling stories, singing, stillness, hand movements, and yes, dancing—all done with a relaxed (and often goofy) attitude. InterPlayers realize that the people who most need to learn how to play sometimes have mental blocks about the very idea of dance, or perhaps even resistance to more basic notions like movement or touch. So their practices are carefully designed to put participants at ease and ensure that everyone feels safe as they learn gradually to “let go.” You may think you’re making a fool of yourself, but so is everyone else; the freedom for each person to be equally silly without judgments or comparisons is part of InterPlay’s basic philosophy.

InterPlayers learn to identify judgments they may have unconsciously made about themselves and release them. Since other participants are not judging you, you learn to silence your inner critic as well. So taking part in InterPlay activities is something like a cross between group therapy and improv comedy. InterPlay teaches participants to become more spontaneous and creative, to better handle stress, change, and uncertainty, and to be more effective collaborators.

Playground as Church

Although many InterPlayers become involved out of a desire to free themselves of certain religious baggage, the practice itself has no religious (or anti-religious) agenda. Instead, it espouses the viewpoint that spirituality is a subset of play, and that to the extent we can discover our true selves, we become better equipped to experience deeper levels of reality. Those who feel a spiritual path must be one of great seriousness and asceticism are challenged to think about spirituality in a more relaxed, light-hearted way.

InterPlay creators Cynthia Winton-Henry and Phil Porter met while attending seminary in Berkeley, California in the late 1970s. They have collaborated ever since. After developing the basic philosophy of InterPlay, they formed a nonprofit organization called Body Wisdom to provide a structure for teaching InterPlay and training other leaders. InterPlay groups have sprung up all over the world; the activities are also taught in such diverse settings as corporations, churches, hospitals, and prisons. Body Wisdom’s current headquarters, called InterPlayce, opened in downtown Oakland, California in 2004.

I have several friends who practice InterPlay, including one who’s a regional leader and was once on Body Wisdom’s board of directors. Although I myself am not an InterPlayer, I’ve noticed that simply by interacting with people who are, I’ve gotten sucked into the wonderful vortex of playfulness that they embody. And that’s exactly what InterPlay is all about: spreading the benign contagion of play.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on May 17, 2005.

Image credit: Pixabay

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Author: Joe Kissell

Optical Painters’ Aids

An artist drawing with the aid of a camera obscura

A matter of perspective

Although I like to think of myself as a multitalented “Renaissance man” of sorts, I must admit that when it comes to drawing and painting, I have absolutely no ability. I’m truly pitiful at Pictionary, and I couldn’t paint my way out of a paper bag. Or so I’ve always thought. Based on what I’ve learned about the methods of some famous painters, I could probably produce some fantastic art from the inside of a very large paper bag, as long as it had a pinhole on one side and pretty bright light outside. All I’d have to do is trace the image projected by this primitive camera obscura. According to a controversial theory, this technique—or something very much like it—gave some world-renowned artists a little help as far back as 1420. Then again…maybe not. Getting to the bottom of this puzzle has been the consuming passion of quite a few artists, historians, and optical engineers.

Without a Trace

Tracing over a projected image is a straightforward notion, but if you’ve ever tried it (as I have) you probably discovered that getting good results is not as easy as it sounds. The easy part is getting the proportions right. But lots of things in any image lack well-defined borders, and trying to make sense of textures and the effects of light and shadow while tracing something is quite a complex undertaking. If, instead of tracing, I were painting, the challenge would become even greater, as I’d have to carefully match gradations in color—and as soon as I applied a dark paint to the light surface, the image in that area would virtually disappear. All that to say: projection or no projection, producing a convincingly realistic drawing or painting takes a lot of skill and practice. So if it turned out that one of the great masters from centuries ago really did pull this off, I’d be no less impressed by the final product—and more impressed by the artist’s cleverness.

We know that numerous artists nowadays, and over the past couple of centuries, have employed just such a technique; many of Andy Warhol’s best-known pieces, for instance, were done this way. Prior to the invention of photography, though, the only images that could be projected were live representations of the real world. The technology to do this, the camera obscura, has been known for many centuries—possibly since as far back as the fifth century BCE. If a tiny hole is placed in the wall of a very dark room and the light outside is bright enough, an inverted image of the outside scene is projected onto the wall inside. But the image is usually fairly dim and fuzzy. Two important innovations in camera obscura design occurred in the 16th century: the addition of a lens (which made the image sharper) and a mirror (which could direct the image onto a horizontal surface rather than a wall). And there are a few scattered records from the mid-16th century of artists suggesting the use of a camera obscura as a drawing aid, though the earliest confirmed date of anyone actually doing so is 1603.

An Obscura Artist

It should therefore come as no surprise that an artist might have used such a technique in the 1660s, and that’s just what some people have claimed for more than 100 years about Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer (1632–75). These suggestions first surfaced when people began noticing that the proportions in Vermeer’s paintings didn’t match those of other works from the time, in which the subjects were typically painted at the size the artist perceived them to be. But in Vermeer’s works, objects and people closer to the foreground are larger than those in the background—seemingly in just the proportions that they would be in a photograph—or a tracing from a camera obscura image. Several other clues in the geometry and lighting suggested the same thing, but there was no evidence that Vermeer actually had (or even had heard of) a camera obscura. In addition, since the scenes in question were interiors, presumably any image created by a camera obscura would have been incredibly dim. So for many decades the debate continued.

Then in 2001, architect Philip Steadman described in his book Vermeer’s Camera detailed research into the geometry of several of Vermeer’s paintings—backed up with photos of painstakingly recreated miniatures of the rooms from the paintings. Steadman’s studies showed that given the dimensions of the room in each scene (which he carefully calculated) and the viewpoint and size of each painting, all are absolutely consistent with an image of the room being projected onto its back wall with a camera obscura. In other words, given not only the uncanny accuracy of the paintings but also the specifics of their perspective, Steadman felt it was nearly a mathematical certainty that Vermeer partitioned off a small corner in the back of this room as a camera obscura and painted over the image on a canvas that hung on the wall. (In at least some cases, X-ray evidence shows that although there was no underlying sketch, there was a monochrome image beneath the color paint; this makes sense considering the very dim conditions inside the camera obscura.)

Tim’s Vermeer

In 2013, the story took another big step. Inspired in part by Steadman’s work, an inventor named Tim Jenison set about to recreate one of Vermeer’s paintings. Jenison claimed no artistic talent, but he did know a few things about optics. So he devised a mechanism that would have been entirely possible using 17th-century technology: a combination of a camera obscura and a small mirror positioned at an angle above the canvas. Using this setup, along with a room designed to be an exact duplicate of the one in Vermeer’s “The Music Lesson” (including live models in period dress), Jenison spent seven months creating his own version of a Vermeer. The striking results strongly suggest that Vermeer used a similar setup himself. The entire project was documented in the film Tim’s Vermeer, directed by Teller and produced by Penn Jillette (of Penn & Teller).

Both Steadman’s book and Tim’s Vermeer met with a certain amount of controversy, not least because they seemingly suggest that Vermeer did not produce his works with artistic skill alone. (Oh, the horror to think that he might have supplemented his considerable artistic skill with technological skill!) But the evidence from both sources is pretty convincing—and, of course, it mainly confirms what a lot of people had suspected all along.

Mirror, Mirror

Shortly after Vermeer’s Camera was published, another book hit the shelves that made much broader (and more controversial) claims—and also influenced Tim Jenison’s work. Painter David Hockney, in his book Secret Knowledge, alleges that European artists used optical aids for painting as early as the beginning of the 15th century. But rather than using a camera obscura, Hockney believes these artists used a concave mirror to project an image onto the canvas; no documentary evidence exists simply because they all chose to keep it a carefully guarded trade secret. Among the many artists on Hockney’s list are Van Eyck, Caravaggio, and Lotto.

Hockney noticed that around the early 1400s, paintings began to show a much more natural representation of light and perspective—that, in some cases, they looked nearly photographic. He was convinced that the level of realism and accuracy they displayed was simply too great to have been done by eye, so he started looking for other explanations. As he went back through history, he noted the use of the camera obscura and other optical aids, and he suspected that the practice may have been much older. He formulated a series of theories about how various works of art over a period of several centuries may have been made by using optics of one kind or another.

Experts in the art world are still divided over Hockney’s claims. Because his theories are so wide-ranging, some of them are bound to be accurate to one extent or another. But many critics believe Hockney has gone too far, and a few have spent considerable effort rebutting his theories. David Stork, a physicist and art historian at Stanford University, has published numerous papers debunking various aspects of Hockney’s book. Stork found alternative explanations for many claims of optical aids, pointing out that none of the available evidence requires one to posit the use of optics in the oldest and most controversial works; there are other, simpler explanations. In addition, Stork finds it highly implausible that the artists could have discovered, created, and kept secret such advanced technology for so many years.

Having read lengthy articles about this debate until my eyes blurred, I feel I have enough information to reach my own conclusion. And that conclusion is: it doesn’t matter. What Hockney, Stork, and I agree on is that even if these legendary masters did use optics, that does not in any way constitute “cheating”; they would simply have been tools of the trade. In the end, I think the years invested in this intellectual exercise might have been more profitably spent painting.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on May 21, 2005.

Image credit: unknown illustrator [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Author: Joe Kissell