Archive for September 2017

We have all heard of people who had their bodies cryogenically preserved after death in the hope that some day, medical science will be able to bring them back to life and cure whatever illness caused their demise. That hope may be overly optimistic, but I can at least respect the logic behind the decision. Unlikely though it may be, I can’t say categorically that such a restoration is beyond the reach of some future science. With that single exception, however, I have never understood the ages-old practice of keeping dead bodies from decaying naturally. It’s not that I’m some soulless pragmatist, but I believe that death is the point at which a body becomes superfluous to its erstwhile owner—keeping it intact thereafter seems superstitious and creepy. Of course, that’s just my opinion. Some of my best friends are superstitious and creepy, and I don’t hold it against them.

Grave Concerns
Each culture has somewhat different beliefs about what should happen to a corpse. In North America, the majority of the deceased are embalmed so that they’ll look lifelike for a funeral several days later; they are then buried in airtight caskets inside concrete vaults or grave liners. Some people may derive comfort from the notion that a departed loved one is still somehow whole, but in ancient Egypt, much more was at stake than the feelings of the bereaved. During the centuries when the art of mummification was practiced, it was based on a deeply held belief that only if the tissues of one’s body were kept intact after death would the soul survive throughout eternity.

To oversimplify greatly, the goal of Egyptian mummification was to rid the body of moisture so that it would not decay. They had to start with the internal organs, which have the tendency to remain moist for a long time after death, providing a fertile breeding ground for bacteria. Some of the organs were deemed important enough to preserve separately; others, like the brain and kidneys, were seemingly useless and were discarded. The empty cavities were filled with a desiccant salt called natron, which also covered the outside of the body. After a period of a month or more, when it had absorbed all the moisture from the flesh, the salt was removed. The body was then stuffed with spices and sawdust to restore a more natural shape, covered with long strips of linen bandages, and buried in a sarcophagus.

Preservation Reborn
Thousands of years later, mummification is making a comeback. In 1994, Bob Brier, a professor at Long Island University in New York, performed an Egyptian-style mummification on a man who had died and left his body to science. Brier followed the historical procedures as closely as he could determine, in an effort to learn details about the process that could not be discerned simply by studying mummies that had been sitting around for millennia. At the time, Brier’s project was the subject of numerous news reports and even a National Geographic documentary. But now he has been upstaged by a new, high-tech method of mummification that is available to the general (dead) public—for a price.

Summum is a religious group based in Salt Lake City, Utah, founded in 1975 by Summum “Corky” Ra (né Claude Rex Nowell). Among other things, Summum teaches the importance of preserving the body after death—and conveniently, they offer just such a service. For about US$70,000, your body will be carefully preserved using a patented process that inhibits decay without drying out the flesh. Your mummified body will be placed into its own custom-made bronze sarcophagus, which can then be buried or entombed just like any other casket. Hundreds of people have already signed up for the service, but none of these people has died yet—so far, Summum has only mummified pets.

As enticing as this deal is, I can make you a better offer. For only $50,000, I would be happy to sit down with you and help you to feel better about the natural process of decay. I’ll even throw in a trip to Egypt and a large batch of my homemade chocolate chip cookies, which are guaranteed to make you happier in life (and, I’m sure, well beyond). —Joe Kissell

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More Information about Modern Mummies…

The official Summum Mummification page has complete details about their program. The rest of the information on the site was too, ah, advanced for me to make much sense of.

Other articles about Summum and/or Bob Brier:

Also see How Mummies Work by Tom Harris at

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It’s a good thing I had never heard of Demosthenes when I was a child. I would have gotten in trouble. My mom would have said, “Don’t talk with your mouth full.” And I would have replied, “Don’t you want me to be a famous orator like Demosthenes? I’m training!” And then I would have been sent to my room without any more of whatever my mouth was full of. Kids, this is why grownups are always saying things like, “You’re too young to understand. Just take my word for it.” It’s for your own good. And if you get in trouble for talking with your mouth full, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Repeat After Me
Even as an adult, I get in trouble over Demosthenes. A while back, Morgen and I were watching “My Fair Lady” on TV. For those unfamiliar with the story, a linguistics professor in London named Henry Higgins makes a wager with a friend that he can rid a working-class girl, Eliza Doolittle, of her Cockney accent and teach her to speak like a proper lady. In one of his many drills, he insists that Eliza fill her mouth with marbles and then read a series of phrases. So of course I said, “Oh, just like Demosthenes.” Morgen gave me one of her patented looks that means “How do you expect me to know these obscure facts if I don’t read about them on Interesting Thing of the Day?” I was tempted to respond with a look that meant “Oh come on, everybody knows about Demosthenes,” but I opted instead for the path of marital concord. After all, one shouldn’t look a gift topic in the mouth.

Appropriately enough, Demosthenes had a name that, for many English-speaking people, is a tongue twister. I have always pronounced it “di MAHS thə neez,” which is what my trusty dictionary says. However, no less an authority than Demosthenes Spiropoulos, proprietor of the Web site, says: “The name is pronounced: Dee-moss-sta-kness.” So take your pick; I suppose it depends on how authentically Greek you want to sound (which, in my case, is not at all).

Speaker System
The story is this. Demosthenes lived in Athens from 384 B.C. to 322 B.C. As a young man, he suffered from a speech impediment—which may have been a stutter, an inability to pronounce the “r” sound, or both. He designed a series of exercises for himself to improve his speech. According to legend, he practiced speaking with stones in his mouth, which forced him to work very hard to get the sounds out. When his diction became clearer, he got rid of the stones and found he was able to enunciate much more effectively than before. He also practiced reciting speeches while running and speaking over the roar of ocean waves to improve his projection. These strategies must have worked, because Demosthenes achieved fame as the greatest orator in ancient Greece. He is best known for his passionate speeches urging the Greek citizens to defend themselves against invading Macedonian king Philip II.

Naturally this story is repeated often with a moral of “work hard, be persistent, and you will succeed.” Alas for Demosthenes, historical acclaim is all he got for his efforts. His speeches, though popular and well-received, did not prevent Greece’s conquest by Macedonia. Shortly thereafter, Demosthenes was falsely accused of taking a bribe and sent to prison. He escaped, but remained in exile until Alexander the Great died. Demosthenes then returned to Athens and once more tried to lead a popular uprising. He failed again, but not without attracting the attention of the authorities. When he learned that he faced imminent capture and possibly death, he committed suicide by taking poison he had long kept hidden in a pen. Tragic though his end was, the story of Demosthenes’ dramatic forensic achievements continues to inspire speakers to this day. —Joe Kissell

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More Information about Demosthenes’ Stones…

Read more about Demosthenes in:

Also be sure to see the page Instant History: Just Add Water on

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The 1964 film version of My Fair Lady, starring Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison, will give you a small taste of Demosthenes’ method.

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Guest Article by Rajagopal Sukumar

The S Curve

While the saying “success begets success” has almost become a cliché, there is no dearth of stories covering inexplicable failures of extremely successful people and corporations. Reading some of these stories and the books on this topic led me to the question: What if there is something fundamental that we are missing about success that leads to all these spectacular failures?

S Curve
My research brought me to the fascinating concept of the S Curve. Apparently, when you plot expertise with respect to time, it traces an S-shaped curve.

As depicted in the accompanying diagram, when we begin learning a skill, we are a bit slow initially at the tail of the S curve. As time progresses, learning proceeds at a dramatically increased speed, helping us to climb the steep slope of the S curve very quickly. At the top of the slope, we are deemed experts in that particular skill. From then on, even if we put a lot of effort into improving ourselves in that area, the resultant learning will not be proportional. The top end of the S curve is also called the slope of diminishing returns. At the top of the S curve, many people succumb to the effects of hubris, which gives them a false sense of security because the world believes and acknowledges that they are the experts in that field. Unfortunately, the world keeps moving and some other new skill becomes important, which renders this expert obsolete.

Success May Breed Failure
John R. O’Neil has written an extremely interesting book titled Paradox of Success. In this book, O’Neil analyzes many high-profile failures and in the process explains how the S curve closely fits the pattern of learning and how success causes people to fail because some strengths have become so accentuated to now be the cause of their failure.

Is there a way out? What do we do after we reach the peak of the S curve?

One answer is that we can start a new S curve. By analogy, consider mountain climbing, which is sort of similar to learning new skills. Initially, we start at the bottom with a clear estimate and a timeline to climb the mountain. As we come to grips with the terrain of the mountain, we are able to climb more efficiently and reach the summit. Having reached the summit, we cannot stay there for long, depending on the altitude. For instance, if we were climbing Mt. Everest, we could be there at the peak only for a few minutes due to atmospheric conditions and human limitations. Descent becomes important pretty soon. But if we are keen mountaineers, we set our sights on the next mountain to climb. In a similar way, when we reach the top of the S curve of a particular skill, we should start the S curve of the next important skill. Ultimately, our skill set should look like a mountain range with a lot of mountains (or a lot of S curves) in it representing various skills that we have learned.

Many of us trace multiple S curves in our lives as we learn new skills, but mostly these are incremental or evolutionary transitions. It is harder to make major or revolutionary transitions—ones that involve us moving from one career to a completely different one—say, a teacher becoming a politician.

Master of the S Curve
To take the idea of making revolutionary transitions to its extreme, I wanted to see if there is anyone out there we could call the Master of the S Curve—someone I define as having had at least three revolutionary S curves in his or her life. I set the threshold at three, because a lot of people have two S curves—for instance, many politicians come from other walks of life, and many sportspersons become commentators or coaches. Therefore, a lot of them automatically have two S curves.

Using a quick and dirty research approach, I looked at individuals both contemporary and historical, including TIME magazine’s 100 greatest people list and other Greatest-People-of-All-Time lists. I was looking for people who reached a high degree of success in one field, transitioned into an unrelated field, achieved success in that field, and so on—3 or more times. Since I felt that innately multi-faceted geniuses such as Leonardo da Vinci excelled in many fields at the same time, I excluded them. Of course, I also did not include people who did not become famous because it is hard to know about them. Believe it or not, I could shortlist only two people: Albert Schweitzer (musician/theologian, doctor, humanitarian/social reformer) and Benjamin Franklin (printer/publisher, inventor, statesman/politician).

Many scientists have shown that when you expect something to turn out a certain way, it almost always does—a self-fulfilling prophecy. As a note of caution, while we should be aware of the S Curve and how it affects us, we should not automatically assume and expect that the S Curve will play out no matter what we do. If we do that, we will take away the power of human endeavor. —Rajagopal Sukumar

Guest author Rajagopal Sukumar lives in Chennai, India and serves as the Chief Knowledge Officer (CKO) of a software consulting company that specializes in the global delivery model. You can read his personal blog at

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More Information about The S Curve…

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The Paradox of Success by John R. O’Neil is a must-read book on this subject.

For more information on my shortlisted Masters of the S Curve, read about Albert Schweitzer or Benjamin Franklin. Self-fulfilling prophecies are described at

Although this article covers the application of S Curve to the acquisition of expertise, S Curves are something akin to a law of nature and has been applied to many other facets of our world. If you want to learn more about the fascinating applications of S curves, please read Predictions by Dr. Theodore Modis, where he uses them to model the staying power of products, birthrate among women, number of fatal car accidents, and many others. Vito Volterra and Alfred Lotka built a set of mathematical equations for the S Curve known as the Lotka-Volterra Equations, which they used to model the predator-prey population. Cesare Marchetti, an Austrian physicist, used the equations to predict energy demands.

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Some more food for thought—are there corporations that have three or more revolutionary S Curves? From a corporate failure perspective, Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma is a seminal work. The enormous amount of research that went into that book and the theoretical underpinnings that Christensen describes has made a huge impact on students of strategy such as me. The Innovator’s Solution—the follow-on to The Innovator’s Dilemma—had an even greater impact on me, owing to what I believe is a more cogent theoretical foundation than the first book.

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I distinctly remember learning the laws of thermodynamics in a science class—it must have been around eighth grade. After explaining these laws, the teacher added, “…and that is why perpetual motion machines are impossible.” So this fact has been firmly implanted in my brain for a very long time.

What I did not realize back then is that over the centuries, hundreds—if not thousands—of hopeful inventors have dedicated their lives to disproving these laws by building machines they believed would run indefinitely with no input of energy. Patent offices around the world became so inundated with designs for alleged perpetual motion machines that they now routinely dismiss such submissions without so much as a glance. But although every such design ever attempted has failed, the pace of research to find that subtle trick that results in perpetual motion has, if anything, accelerated. While doing some research on another topic, I stumbled upon a Web site listing an incredible number of current or recent projects. And sadly, many of these are not merely futile but fraudulent, as their developers convince investors to fork over large sums of money to pay for something that is just not possible.

That said, the books and Web sites created to debunk claims of perpetual motion technology are equally numerous—and equally passionate, if not more so. As obsessed as true believers may be in proving their claims, the skeptics are just as obsessed with disproving them, and greater enthusiasm from one camp is met with renewed fervor from the other. Whether this self-reinforcing feedback loop itself constitutes perpetual motion is a question better left for philosophers.

The term perpetual motion is perhaps a bit misleading, since technically, nothing about the laws of thermodynamics prohibits something from moving forever. Arguably, the motion of planets in space and electrons in atoms is, in some sense, perpetual. But the point of building a perpetual motion machine is typically not just to get something to stay in motion, but to do work of some sort—propel a vehicle, power a mill, heat your coffee, or run your computer. Any output of energy (whether in the form of heat, electricity, motion, or whatever) that goes beyond the input minus what the machine itself uses is what conflicts with the laws of thermodynamics. Nowadays, designers are concerned less with producing motion than with producing excess energy in the form of electricity or heat, so terms such as “free energy” and “over-unity” are often applied to devices, moving or not, whose energy output ostensibly exceeds their input.

Laying Down the Law
For those of you who haven’t been in eighth grade recently, here’s a quick review of the laws of thermodynamics. The First Law of Thermodynamics, also known as the Law of Conservation of Energy, states that energy can be neither created nor destroyed. Thus, the total energy within a system is a constant; although a system can turn one form of energy into another (say, electricity into motion), the net output can never be greater than the net input. The Second Law of Thermodynamics, also known as the Law of Entropy, states that heat cannot be turned into other forms of energy with 100% efficiency. Or, to put it more generally, in any system involving the conversion of energy (per the First Law), some amount of energy will be dissipated into the environment in the form of heat. (There’s also a third law and a zeroth law—no kidding—but those are not usually applicable to perpetual motion machines.)

A machine could achieve perpetual motion only by violating one or both of the first two laws of thermodynamics. For example, if there were some sort of motor that spun on its own forever, that would be a violation of the first law, because it would produce energy output without energy input. And if there were a device that converted electricity into motion, and then used that motion to drive a generator producing more electricity (to keep the cycle going indefinitely), that would violate the second law, which predicts that eventually the loss of energy due to inefficiency would cause the machine to stop.

Running on Empty
So the question most perpetual-motion and free-energy enthusiasts start with is, “Who says I can’t break those laws, anyway?” Surely, the inventor says, there must be some way to exploit gravity, magnetism, or other natural forces in such a way as to produce a machine that will run forever. And the attempts over the years to do so have been nothing if not creative. Some devices are purely mechanical; others depend on water, gases, or chemical reactions; still others have no visible moving parts, operating at a molecular or even quantum level. And yet, each design that has actually been built—large or small, simple or complex—has eventually stopped producing energy (if in fact it ever worked at all), just as the laws of thermodynamics said would happen.

Of course, there is a nagging problem. The standard scientific definition of a perpetual motion machine is “a machine that violates one or more laws of thermodynamics.” But this sounds suspiciously like an attempt to define such machines out of existence—it allows skeptics to say, “Whatever it is you’ve designed, it can’t be a perpetual motion machine because we define such machines as ones that can’t possibly exist.” It’s rather like saying, “I define a flying saucer as an imaginary spacecraft. Therefore, whatever you saw in the sky, it could not by definition have been a flying saucer.” However well justified scientific skepticism may be, this is a rhetorically unfair tactic. And it has only spurred free-energy proponents to work harder to prove they’re right.

So Near, and Yet So Far
In a typical scenario, an inventor has an idea for a novel design. When the machine is actually constructed, it seems to work for a while but then stops, prompting the inventor to conclude that with further refinement, it would keep going. Or a device appears to produce excess energy, until it is discovered that the measurement technique was flawed, and that energy from another source was in fact being applied to the system. Because it’s possible to make extremely efficient machines that run for a very long time with just a small initial injection of power, it’s tempting to believe that a truly perpetual solution is just around the corner. The only problem is, the distance between “a very long time” and “forever” is infinite.

Despite the best efforts of scientists, engineers, and crackpots alike, the laws of thermodynamics have held their own and show no signs of being breakable. Several large cash prizes have been offered for people who can construct a working perpetual motion machine and prove its capabilities under rigorous test conditions. The prizes lie unclaimed so far. But for someone to offer such a prize is not merely a statement of confidence in the laws of science—it’s a dare. And I think that deep down, many skeptics hope someone eventually proves them wrong. Free energy is something we all wish we could believe in, like world peace—and entropy makes one as elusive as the other. —Joe Kissell

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More Information about Perpetual Motion Machines…

Eric’s History of Perpetual Motion and Free Energy Machines is a long list of attempts to create perpetual motion machines from the 13th century to the present.

The best and most complete site I’ve found covering perpetual motion is Donald Simanek’s The Museum of Unworkable Devices. Other resources include:

Eric Krieg offers a $10,000 prize to anyone who can successfully demonstrate a “free energy” machine.

For a more thorough discussion of attempts to build perpetual motion machines, read Perpetual Motion: The History of an Obsession by Arthur W. J. G. Ord-Hume. Or, to get the other side of the story, see Quest for Zero Point Energy Engineering Principles for Free Energy or Tapping the Zero Point Energy: Free Energy in Today’s Physics by Moray B. King. (But remember: I warned you.)

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There have been a couple of attempts to set the laws of thermodynamics to music—including “Entropy” by Moxy Früvous (buy it on the iTunes Music Store | lyrics here), on their B album (iTunes Music Store | and “First and Second Law” by Flanders and Swann. Bela Fleck has an album of classical music (played on the banjo, natch) called Perpetual Motion.

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When I write technical books and articles, I generally assume my audience is composed of ordinary people, not programmers or computer experts. I try to provide enough context and detail so that any reasonably intelligent person can get the gist of what I’m saying, even without prior experience in the topic I’m discussing. But in one of my ebooks, I described a certain procedure that, because it was somewhat complex, should only be attempted by those with a fair amount of computer know-how. The way I put it was this: “Unlike everything else in this book, this rather involved (and entirely optional) technique does require you to wear a propeller beanie…”

A few months later, I got an email from the man who was translating the book into German. His very reasonable question: “What is a propeller beanie?”

I found it surprisingly difficult to answer the question. I can describe what a propeller beanie looks like, but if the translator put the German equivalent for “child’s skullcap with a decorative plastic propeller” in the book, that would not be meaningful to the readers—they’d wonder, “Why must I wear a silly hat to be able to do such-and-such with my computer?” After explaining, as best I could, the cultural significance of the propeller beanie in America, I told the translator that it would be best just to say, “This technique requires you to be technically proficient.” I have no idea if there is any shorthand symbol in German that represents the same bundle of ideas that the propeller beanie does in English. But this exchange, besides bringing back memories of graduate linguistics courses in the problems of translation, made me wonder where the propeller beanie actually came from, and how it came to mean what it does today.

Putting On Your Thinking Cap
Science fiction author and cartoonist Ray Nelson claims to have invented the propeller beanie while still a high school student in 1947. The story is that he and some friends decided to take some pictures parodying science-fiction icons of the day. To represent a hero with an antigravity device, someone decided they should put a propeller on a hat, and Nelson quickly put one together from scraps of plastic he had lying around his room. One of his friends, George Young, believed at the time (and apparently still does) that Nelson bought the cap at a dime store rather than making it himself; Nelson maintains to this day that the cap was his invention. In any case, they all agreed the propeller beanie was a great joke, and Young later wore the hat at a science fiction convention—to much general approval. So Nelson drew a cartoon featuring Young in a propeller beanie as a symbol of science fiction fans. This cartoon led to other cartoons and eventually to an animated TV show called “Beany and Cecil” in which one of the characters, Beany Boy, wore the eponymous propeller beanie. The show in turn led inevitably to merchandising, and thus a cultural phenomenon was born.

There being (as far as I’ve been able to determine) no drawings or stories of the propeller beanie that predate Nelson’s claim, I believe that he did in fact invent it. Due to a series of misunderstandings, Nelson was not properly credited with the invention when it was first commercialized, and though the manufacturer (and the cartoonist from whom they licensed the design) made millions on the propeller beanie, Nelson himself received none of that money. In any case, no one disputes that Nelson was responsible for popularizing the propeller beanie through his cartoons.

Mark of the Geeks
Meanwhile, the sci-fi fans who had made their own propeller beanies by hand and worn them proudly when they were an “in” joke stopped wearing them as soon as they became popular among the mainstream youth of America. Although the propeller beanie appeared in comics for years afterward, the fad itself soon faded, and any child over a certain age who still wore such a cap was considered socially unsophisticated—reinforcing the stereotype of the science fiction fan as being out of touch with reality (including fashion trends). Eventually, however, computer enthusiasts resurrected the propeller beanie as a self-deprecating badge of honor—as if to say, “Yes, we know we’re out of touch with reality, and we’re proud of it!”

That is the sense in which I’ve always known the propeller beanie: a representation of the nerdy programmer. In the early 1990s, I was living in Pittsburgh and working as a computer graphic artist. A few blocks from my office was the headquarters of a small software company, and I got to know several of the employees there through a mutual friend. This company (which has been out of business for many years now) had a group of faithful hangers-on who served as beta testers—people who try out new software before its release and look for bugs, so that they can be fixed before it ships. I signed on as a tester for one of their products, and dutifully found and reported as many bugs as I could. When the software shipped, they honored their best beta testers by giving them a propeller beanie and a certificate that said “Order of the Beanie.” Getting my own beanie was a proud moment, and I think I still have that certificate somewhere. Later, when a friend and I started a (short-lived) consulting company called ComputerGeeks, Inc., we used a picture of a propeller beanie as our logo; our slogan was “We’re geeks so you don’t have to be.”

The classic propeller beanie is brimless and multicolored, typically with alternating wedges of yellow and red. Some modern designs add a brim—effectively making it into a baseball cap with a propeller. You can even find motorized propeller beanies. What you cannot find, of course, is a propeller beanie with enough lift to fly off your head—much less take you with it. But the computer geek culture actually uses the propeller beanie in much the same way as it was originally intended: a way to make fun of oneself and the sillier side of the technology we love. —Joe Kissell

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More Information about Propeller Beanies…

You can read much more by and about Ray Nelson on his Web site,

Other versions of the story:

In 1950, Jerome Lemelson patented a variation on the propeller beanie that provided a tube the wearer could blow into to spin the propeller.

You can buy the classic (multicolored, brimless) propeller beanie from such online sources as Archie McPhee,, and Hats in the Belfry.

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