A twisted Juniper tree near a rock formation in Sedona, Arizona

The world’s most popular invisible tourist attraction

Allow me to get this disclaimer out of the way right up front: today’s interesting thing might not exist. But let’s be fair—I am not one to judge something by its ontological status alone. If it does exist, it’s very interesting indeed, and if it doesn’t, the widespread belief in its existence is equally interesting. I am referring to a natural phenomenon supposedly found in several places around Sedona, Arizona: something called an energy vortex.

The town of Sedona, about two hours’ drive north of Phoenix, is situated in an area of rare and stunning natural beauty. Towering rock formations and iron-rich reddish soil give the landscape an otherworldly appearance. This looks like what you imagined as the Old West, and countless films have been shot here. Kids will recognize it as the habitat of Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote. If you’re looking for a scenic vacation spot, Sedona is the place to go. It’s a favorite destination for romantic getaways, with a resort or a spa around every corner.

Doing the Twist

A large percentage of Sedona’s visitors, however, come to experience something you can’t see at all. An endless number of books, websites, brochures, and local guides proclaim the wonders of several so-called energy vortexes. A vortex, it is claimed, is an area of invisible, swirling energy emanating from the earth and producing an uplifting, rejuvenating sensation in visitors. Nearby, one often finds juniper trees with severely twisted trunks and branches—an effect attributed to the vortex energy. So powerful is this force, in fact, that it has twisted the laws of grammar in the entire region. What would in other parts of the English-speaking world be called “vortices” gets twisted into “vortexes” in the local parlance.

What exactly is an energy vortex? There is no convincing answer to that question, the only common thread being that they are spots of increased energy. Some people use terms such as “magnetic,” “electrical,” or “electromagnetic” to refer to this energy, but I have heard of no scientific measurements that indicate any unusual electromagnetic activity in the area. Even if there were, it’s unclear how human beings would be able to sense it directly. Others say it’s nothing of the sort, that it’s psychic energy of some kind, which explains why it can’t be measured. But the energy is nearly always described using the term “subtle,” with the promise that you will feel it “if you are a sensitive person.” In my less charitable moments, I suspect “sensitive” is meant as a euphemism for “credulous,” but you can make up your own mind.

Looking for a Sign

Actual evidence for the existence of the vortexes—apart from all the footprints and cairns left by tourists—is sketchy at best. The twisted juniper trees, which are indeed quite unusual, are the only physical indication of invisible forces, and only a very few of the trees have this feature. You’ll see a twisted tree right next to a perfectly ordinary one. It seems strange that a vortex would produce such a highly localized effect, and I can imagine any number of other causes for the twisted trees.

Locals seem to be in agreement that there are four main vortexes near Sedona, though some claim there are a number of other smaller vortexes, and others describe the whole area as being effectively one giant vortex. Vortex experts (vortexperts?) go into great detail about how one vortex is more masculine, one more feminine, another balanced in its energy. Others speak of energy as moving upward or downward, depending on the vortex. Clearly there is more to the vortexes than fails to meet the eye.

Taking Vortexes for a Spin

A number of years ago, I was in Sedona to participate in a t’ai chi retreat. I scheduled some extra time in my trip so that I could visit the vortex sites and see (or feel) for myself whether there was anything to the claims. I was prepared for—even hoping for—a significant experience. I didn’t know what I was supposed to feel, but I was looking forward to finding out.

Armed with vortex maps, hiking shoes, and sunscreen, my companions and I began visiting the best-known vortexes. In each location, we hiked to the spot said to be the epicenter of vortex activity and spent some time standing or sitting quietly, trying to clear our minds, relax our bodies, and allow ourselves to experience whatever was there to be experienced. At the first two or three vortexes—reputed to be the stronger ones—I had a very distinct experience of fresh air and sunshine, of perspiration from the heat and the hike, and a sore behind from sitting on the rocks. These are all powerful sensations, of course, but not particularly unusual ones. Beyond that, I just didn’t sense anything. My companions spoke of feeling energized and refreshed, but I figured that was attributable to very ordinary causes.

Our final stop, called the Airport Vortex, was supposedly a weaker vortex. Again we hiked to the appropriate spot (thoughtfully marked with a ring of stones by earlier groups of vortex-seekers). This time I felt…weird. I don’t have a better word for it than that. There was something quite unusual about the way I felt there that just made me walk around for a long time with a puzzled look on my face, trying to put my finger on it. A little tingly, perhaps? Maybe, but that could mean anything. Happy, invigorated, clear-headed? Sure, I guess, but that wasn’t really it either. All I can tell you is that I felt an indeterminate but positive sensation there that I hadn’t felt before and didn’t feel afterward. I don’t know what it was, and I don’t know that it wasn’t my imagination. Whatever it was, it certainly was subtle, and curiously, I was the only one in the group to feel it, whereas I had been the only one not to feel anything at the other locations.

I Want to Believe

I’ll be the first to admit this is hardly a resounding proof. I’m not really the crystals-and-incense type, if you know what I mean, and I have always regarded New Age beliefs with more than a bit of skepticism. That’s not to say I don’t find them extremely interesting. As with any meme that rests on unproven claims, my inclination is to suspect there’s something real behind it, though perhaps not what people commonly believe. Maybe there really is some unmeasurable form of energy concentrated in vortexes; maybe my psychic sensitivity is too underdeveloped or my skepticism too strong for me to perceive it. Or maybe the phenomenon that has been described using “energy vortex” terminology is something entirely different but nevertheless not imaginary. This is all, of course, possible, and I’d like to believe it. I’d like to think that the next time I go to Sedona, I’ll experience more than pretty rocks and fresh air. But the effect will have to be quite pronounced to convince me it’s not just in my head.

Vortexes or not, Sedona is a marvelous place to visit. Endless miles of hiking trails, postcard-perfect photo ops at every turn, and desert tours in a hot air balloon or pink jeep make it a memorable destination. I’ll go there again, and maybe next time I’ll be more attuned to the energy and have a different experience to report. See you at the vortex.


Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

Jedi master Yoda, this photo depicts

Released on this date in 1980, The Empire Strikes Back was. That is when learned we did of the great Jedi master Yoda. Strong with him, the Force was, but his grammar it distorted. Today, the best Star Wars movie of all time we remember. And twist our words we do, to honor a great teacher with a small flaw. Easy being green, it is not.

Image credit: Kory Westerhold [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Flickr


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Acorn vs. egg + corn

Giving old words a new ring

One of the very first things I remember learning in school, around age five or six, was the patriotic song “My County Tis of Thee,” which all the children would sing every morning after reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. At that point, we hadn’t yet been taught how to read—priorities, you know—so we learned the words by listening and repeating. That was fine, except that I was confused about the very last word of the song. The way I heard the last line was, “from every mountainside, let free dumring.”

I didn’t know what a dumring was, and I wondered about that, fleetingly, every time I sang the song for years afterward. Clearly it was someone, or something, that had to be “let free,” which I assumed was the same thing as “set free.” Maybe a dumring was a slave or something. I had no idea. For whatever reason, it never occurred to me that I might be singing two separate words (“dumb ring”), although that would have been equally nonsensical. I must have been well into my teens before I saw the lyrics in print for the first time, and I was utterly shocked to discover what I’d actually been singing: “let freedom ring.” In my defense, my five-year-old self wouldn’t have identified freedom as something that could ring. But I certainly did feel stupid for having misunderstood those words.

Greens, Eggs, and Corn

I’ve run across numerous other instances of lyrics being misheard, sometimes with very funny implications. For example, I know someone who grew up thinking the hymn “Lead On, O King Eternal” was actually “Lead On, O Kinky Turtle”! Just a few months ago, I learned that there’s a linguistic term for exactly this type of misunderstanding. It’s called a mondegreen. That term was coined in 1954 by a writer named Sylvia Wright, who wrote an article for Harper’s Magazine describing how as a child she’d misheard a line from a poem. The actual text was “And laid him on the green,” but she’d understood it to say “And Lady Mondegreen.” In context, that alteration significantly changed the meaning of the poem, as it implied the mysterious and undeserved death of this hitherto unmentioned woman. Thus, “mondegreen” itself started out as a mondegreen, and Wright went on to give several other examples of this phenomenon from music and poetry.

Mondegreens and similar errors go by many names. For example, in Dutch there’s Mama appelsap (“Mommy applejuice”), a misheard lyric from a Michael Jackson song that gave rise to a new term. That’s an example of a related phenomenon, called Soramimi in Japanese, which is the mishearing of lyrics as words in another language.

Closely related to the mondegreen, yet subtly different, is the eggcorn. The term comes from a report of a woman who referred to acorns as “egg corns,” having made a reasonable but incorrect guess about the spelling of the word based on its sound and the fact that an acorn, like a corn kernel, is a kind of seed and could be considered roughly egg-shaped. In a 2003 discussion on a linguistics blog called Language Log, linguist Geoffrey Pullum suggested that the expression “egg corn” itself was as good as any to describe this phenomenon for which no other term seemed to fit. The name stuck (sometimes spelled as two words, sometimes as a single word), and already, after only a few short years, it has been mentioned on tens of thousands of webpages. Hundreds of eggcorns have been catalogued, including “by enlarge” (or “by in large”) for by and large, “for all intensive purposes” for for all intents and purposes, “French benefit” for fringe benefit, “lack toast and tolerant” for lactose intolerant, and “tow the line” for toe the line. In most cases, the eggcorn is extremely close in pronunciation to the correct term, but it’s not a mere matter of misspelling a homophone; the eggcorn’s faulty etymology makes some sort of sense. For example, you might not be able to articulate what’s French about a “French benefit,” but one could easily imagine that if there are French cuffs and French fries, there are also “French benefits.”

Errors Aplenty

There are now numerous websites that exist solely to collect mondegreens and eggcorns; like malapropisms, they’ve officially achieved linguistic fad status. But considerable confusion still exists as to what makes the two phenomena different from each other—or from folk etymology or malapropisms, for that matter. As I understand it, mondegreens are restricted to verse—either spoken or sung. So a mondegreen could conceivably be an eggcorn, but only if the mistake is etymologically defensible in some fashion. Both mondegreens and eggcorns, however, are normally thought of as mistakes by individual speakers that don’t affect the language as a whole. Folk etymology, on the other hand, is a mistake in which one language borrows a word from another, but changing it in the process to reflect the new language’s assumptions—for example, turning cucaracha into “cockroach.” And malapropisms are sort of the reverse of eggcorns; they’re primarily unintended speech errors rather than ongoing errors of comprehension.

This is perhaps an appropriate time to reiterate that although English now has yet another term that means “the wrong word,” there’s still, as far as I know, just one that means “the right word.” That term is aproposism, which I coined even before the word eggcorn appeared. Sadly, although eggcorn might be an aproposism, aproposism is no eggcorn, having so far done very little to propagate itself. It’s been a “tough road to hoe,” but I’m taking it with “a grain assault.”

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on December 6, 2006.


Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

Quiche Lorraine

It’s National Quiche Lorraine Day, so it goes without saying that I’ll be playing the tune of the same name by the B-52s repeatedly. Also, I may very well indulge in one of my go-to lunch choices from my years living in France. Quiche Lorraine, originally from the Lorraine region of France, is a variety of quiche (an open tart filled with an egg-and-cream mixture) featuring lardons or bacon. If you’re not in France, you’ll likely also see cheese in Quiche Lorraine. I’ve encountered lots of other variants too (like recipes that use spinach or other vegetables, or leave out the meat), which are just wrong. I mean, put whatever you like to your quiche, but don’t call it Quiche Lorraine if it isn’t. (That’s tantamount to calling a cocktail a “vodka martini,” in that the very definition of martini is a cocktail made with gin and vermouth. Kids these days!)

Image credit: Wolf Gang [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Flickr


Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

U.S. Army Field Ration D chocolate bar

Defying the laws of confectionary

I once heard a rumor that almost provoked a deep moral crisis. I have always had a profound, passionate, and unshakable devotion to chocolate. Equally strong is my contempt for mosquitoes (and I’d say that even if I hadn’t contracted malaria during a summer in Indonesia when I was in college). The rumor, which turned out to be unsubstantiated, was that mosquitoes pollinate the cacao trees from which cocoa is produced. I had been worried, because I didn’t know how I could maintain my belief that mosquitoes were pure evil if they were necessary for the creation of pure good. Luckily, I did not have to grapple with this serious philosophical issue and I could go on loving chocolate and hating mosquitoes without feeling any inconsistency.

The only real shortcoming of chocolate is that it has an unfortunate tendency to melt when you don’t want it to. Hot chocolate, hot fudge, and chocolate syrup are all fine if that’s what you’re expecting, but if you open a chocolate bar that’s been in a hot car, let’s say, and find that it has liquefied, you’re not going to get the experience you want. Then, of course, there’s the perennial problem of chocolate melting in your hands even when the ambient temperature is low enough to keep it solid. This is, so the ads would have us believe, the entire reason for the existence of M&Ms—a brilliant technological solution that doesn’t actually keep the chocolate from melting but at least keeps it from making a mess.

Military Solutions

A friend of mine who serves in the Swiss army told me that soldiers are supplied with a special chocolate bar that doesn’t melt, even in a pocket on a hot day—part of their standard rations. This sounded like a remarkable invention. I sampled some, and it was OK, though it had none of the soft creaminess for which Swiss chocolates are so famous. My friend considered it barely edible, but better than nothing (and much better than a pocket full of goo). Members of the American military were issued nonmelting chocolate as early as the 1940s, when Hershey created its Field Ration “D,” but that bar, with its oat flour base, could hardly be considered a true chocolate bar. Chocolate technology has come a long way since then. In the first Gulf War, Hershey and Mars fought bitterly for a military contract to supply new and improved chocolate bars that would remain solid at temperatures up to 140°F (60°C).

So how exactly does one go about making a chocolate bar that won’t melt? There are several techniques. Milk chocolate is generally composed of cocoa (or chocolate liquor), cocoa butter, milk, and sugar. It’s primarily the cocoa butter—a type of fat derived from cocoa beans—that determines the chocolate’s melting point. So one technique is simply to play with the proportions of ingredients, starting with a reduction in cocoa butter, until you get something that tastes reasonably good but still resists heat. You can also add solid fillers (as Hershey did originally) to soak up some of the fat, or use other stabilizing agents to keep the keep the bar rigid. (Hershey claims they added egg whites to milk chocolate for their more recent Desert Bar).

Breaking the Mold

But there’s a much simpler approach too. On a visit to a botanical garden in Costa Rica, we were given a sample of some homemade chocolate that, despite my best efforts, I couldn’t melt. Our guide told us that they harvested the cocoa beans by hand, roasted them, shelled them, and then ground the resulting cocoa nibs together with pure cane sugar (also produced locally). The mixture was pressed into molds and allowed to harden. This simple two-ingredient treat is a bit dry and grainy, but still delicious—and utterly heat-proof. Local markets sell the candy (with a variety of additional ingredients, such as nuts and ginger) alongside commercial chocolate bars. Additional undisclosed techniques have emerged in parts of the world where cocoa is produced in large quantities, such as Ghana.

One would think there’d be a significant market for chocolate that won’t melt easily, especially in hot climates. But with few exceptions, heat-resistant chocolate has yet not become commercialized, and it’s extremely difficult for ordinary consumers to get their hands on it, at least in North America. Reportedly, major chocolate manufacturers such as Hershey, Mars, Nestlé, Cadbury, and Callebaut have created various approaches to manufacturing heat-resistant chocolates. Whether, when, or in what form the results will appear on store shelves remains to be seen. Let’s get going on this, guys. Global warming is only going to make matters worse.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on July 26, 2003, and again in a slightly revised form on September 8, 2004.

Image credit: By U.S. Army Center Of Military History [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


Source: Interesting Thing of the Day