Archive for November 2017

My son, Ben, plays trombone in his school’s jazz band. I think this is very cool—and in fact I’m a bit jealous, because I never got to be in jazz band when I was his age. As a trumpeter, I just wasn’t good enough. Later I switched to baritone horn and got a bit better as a musician, but the baritone wasn’t one of the instruments needed in the jazz band. Although it would be a stretch to refer to the music my junior-high jazz band played as true jazz, I certainly found it more interesting and more moving than the stuff the concert band played. And in some sense, that’s the point of jazz: to inspire a visceral reaction, an unfiltered, direct emotion. Never was this more true than during the early days of the 20th century, when jazz was young, new, and shockingly unconventional.

This American invention was outrageously popular not just in the United States, but also in other parts of the world—including places where English was not the primary language. In the 1930s and 1940s, German residents were just as enamored of jazz as everyone else, but Nazi leaders saw it as much more than mere entertainment: they saw it as a threat. For one thing, the Nazis felt that jazz lyrics encouraged a level of sexual permissiveness that was at odds with the standards they set. But more deeply, jazz represented the enemy—both literally, in the sense of its being American, and figuratively in the sense that its African roots made it racially degenerate, an offense to Aryan purity. To enjoy jazz music was to thumb your nose at the Nazi cause. There were also those who claimed that American Jews were behind the whole jazz movement, and the Nazi anti-Semitic rage only added to their distrust of jazz.

It Don’t Mean a Thing if You Ain’t Got that Swing
So Hitler’s government tried repeatedly and in various ways (though with mixed success) to outlaw jazz. Playing, listening to, or owning recordings of jazz music was made illegal—and that included listening to jazz from abroad on a shortwave radio. The very worst form of jazz, from the Nazi perspective, was swing, which was especially popular among young people. As shown in the 1993 film Swing Kids, German youth frequently used swing music and dancing as their outlet for rebellion—in this case, rebellion against the Nazi values in general and the Hitler Youth in particular. Many of the young people who were caught at covert swing parties were sent to concentration camps. But, of course, every attempt to wipe out swing just galvanized its fans further. The surest way to make something desirable, after all, is to forbid it.

This much of the story is relatively well known. But there was another side to the swing phenomenon in Nazi Germany. Just as the government was doing its best to stamp out swing domestically, it was secretly using its very own swing band to spread propaganda abroad.

Josef Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister, was already in charge of radio broadcasts to the U.S. and Britain intended to demoralize and confuse the public, if not actually arouse pro-Nazi sympathy. Hitler suggested that these broadcasts should include music, just as comparable anti-Nazi broadcasts by the allies did. So Goebbels took it upon himself to assemble a group of talented swing musicians who could discreetly put Hitler’s message to toe-tapping music. The group was headlined by singer Karl Schwedler, who anglicized his name to “Charlie.” Along with an array of instrumentalists, including conductor Lutz Templin, he began recording in 1940, and shortly thereafter the group became known as “Charlie and His Orchestra.”

Close Enough for Jazz
The group’s primary M.O. was to take well-known American swing tunes and alter the lyrics—often after the first verse so that listeners didn’t catch on to the deception immediately. These alterations, which ranged from subtle to blatant, included criticisms of American and British leaders, anti-Semitic messages, and other dispiriting comments. Schwedler’s English was excellent, and since the Nazis were careful to conceal the source of the broadcasts, their hope was that American and British listeners would enjoy the music, start singing along, and with any luck actually believe some of what they were singing.

But of course, while making the music freely available overseas, the Nazis did their best to keep it from the German public. Despite the pro-Nazi lyrics, the government could not be seen promoting a form of music it had gone out of its way to repudiate. So although all swing music was forbidden to Germans, the music of Charlie and His Orchestra was the most forbidden, with extremely severe penalties for those caught listening. Naturally, this increased the band’s popularity within Germany.

It’s OK, I’m With the Band
The band members themselves, curiously enough, were not particularly sympathetic to the Nazi cause. Schwedler may have been in it for the money, and some of the band members, who spoke little English, would later say they did not even realize what the lyrics said. But playing in the band paid well and exempted the members from military service. More importantly, it may have saved the lives of some members. Drummer Fritz Brocksieper, for example, had a Jewish grandmother, and so would have been considered Jewish according to Nazi reckoning.

Also curious is the fact that the group developed a significant following among Americans who were exposed to their music. This either says a lot for their music or very little for their lyrics—but in any case, the propaganda was clearly ineffective. The individual members of Charlie and His Orchestra went on to successful careers in music after the war, their unique songs all but forgotten once the authentic originals were again in free circulation. All in all, not a bad gig for a bunch of musicians who found themselves on the wrong side of a war. —Joe Kissell

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More Information about Charlie and His Orchestra…

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To learn more about the German Swing movement, read The Swing Movement in Nazi Germany in the Wikipedia or Swing Heil! The True Story of the German Swing Youth at Retroplanet. I also highly recommend the 1993 film Swing Kids.

For more details on the role of Charlie and His Orchestra in the Nazi propaganda effort, see:

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Hitler’s Airwaves: The Inside Story of Nazi Radio Broadcasting and Propaganda Swing by Horst J. P. Bergmeier and Rainer E. Lotz is the most complete written account (in English) of the topic, with a whole chapter devoted to Charlie and his Orchestra; the book includes a CD of their music. You can also buy a CD with 46 MP3 files of Charlie and His Orchestra for just $5.00 from the Old Time Radio Show Catalog. International Historic Films sells the 1989 documentary Propaganda Swing: Dr. Goebbels Jazz Orchestra (Charlie and His Orchestra) (VHS/NTSC), which also includes two CDs of the music.

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Foucault's Pendulum

Science museums are among my favorite places to visit. In probably a dozen or so museums in several different countries I’ve seen an exhibit called “Foucault’s Pendulum,” in which a heavy weight, suspended from the ceiling by a wire, very slowly changes direction over the course of a day, knocking over a small peg every hour or so or tracing patterns in sand. I was vaguely aware that this was supposed to have something to do with the rotation of the planet, but I never really understood what that was. And to be perfectly honest, I always thought that watching a pendulum swing for an hour so was about as exciting as watching wheat grow.

Then, in the early 1990s, I read Umberto Eco’s novel Foucault’s Pendulum. The novel has little to do with the pendulum as such, but some of the characters muse over its philosophical implications, and the climax of the story takes place at the site where the original pendulum is now hanging—the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers (Conservatory of Arts and Trades) in Paris. Eco’s story piqued my interest, and while vacationing in Paris I decided to visit the Conservatoire and look a little more deeply into the science and history of the real Foucault’s Pendulum.

Getting Into the Swing
Jean Bernard Léon Foucault was born in Paris in 1819. He had planned to study medicine, but eventually realized he was too squeamish to deal with blood, so he turned his attention to less organic branches of science. In the mid-19th century—and for that matter, for most of history up until fairly recently—scientists did not confine themselves to a single, narrow specialty. Foucault was no exception in this regard; although he spent most of his career studying optics and astronomy, he was also responsible for major discoveries in chemistry, electricity, and magnetism. But the invention for which Foucault is best known is his pendulum.

In 1848, Foucault noticed something extremely surprising about a swinging pendulum. Even if you turn the point from which it is swinging, the pendulum continues to swing in the same direction. You can try this experiment yourself with a yo-yo (or, say, a computer mouse—as long as it’s not wireless). Tie the string or cable around a finger, hold your finger out at arm’s length pointing at some handy spot in the room, and set the weight swinging in a straight line. Now take a step or two in an arc so that your finger points at something else, and notice that the weight’s swing hasn’t changed direction, even though the point from which it was suspended has turned. Foucault thought this curious behavior of pendulums—their refusal to be bothered by the position of their point of suspension—might be used to make a stunning visual proof of Earth’s rotation.

The Pendulum and the Planet
By Foucault’s time, the rotation of the Earth was no longer in dispute, but there was still no direct way to demonstrate or measure it. Foucault reasoned that if he hung a pendulum from a fixed point and the direction of the pendulum’s swing appeared to change, that could only be because the Earth itself was moving underneath the pendulum. Over the course of a 24-hour day, if his theory was correct, a pendulum should trace out a complete circle—at least, it would if it were located at the north or south pole; at the latitude of Paris the offset would amount to a circle every 32 hours or so. (At the equator, incidentally, this experiment would not work at all.)

There was a complication, though. Because of the effects of air resistance, gravity, and friction, a swinging pendulum will eventually come to a stop, and in order to demonstrate the rotation of the Earth, it needed to swing for a significant period of time—at least an hour or two. To increase the inertia of a pendulum, and therefore the amount of time it will swing without stopping, you can increase either the length of the wire, the mass of the ball at the end, or both. So Foucault hung an 11-lb. (5kg) ball at the end of a 6-foot (2m) wire in his basement, and sure enough, before it stopped swinging the angle had rotated slightly clockwise.

Foucault then repeated the experiment with a much longer, 36-foot (11m) wire in the Paris Observatory, and the effect was again just as he had predicted. In 1851, he constructed an even grander, 220-foot (67m) pendulum in the Panthéon in Paris, and held the first public demonstrations, promising the crowds they would “see the Earth go round.” Sure enough, the giant pendulum made a slow but predictable clockwise motion. Later, Foucault tried the same test with a spinning (rather than swinging) weight. It worked, and this led to his invention of the gyroscope.

Fixed Points and Local Motion
There is, however, even more to Foucault’s pendulum than the brilliant proof of the Earth’s rotation. The experiment works because the pendulum is hanging from a fixed point. Or is it? If you think about it, the building from which the pendulum is suspended is moving along with the Earth, which is in turn rotating around the Sun. The Sun, too, along with the rest of the solar system, rotates around the center of the galaxy, and so on. So it’s really not correct to think of the bracket on the ceiling as being a fixed point. And yet, curiously, it’s not just movement of the attachment point that the pendulum ignores—it ignores the movement of the planet and even the galaxy. The swing of the pendulum remains aligned with, apparently, the universe itself—or, to make it more comprehensible, think of it as being aligned with some very distant star. So the pendulum acts as if it’s hanging from some absolutely fixed location deep in the center of the universe. Whether this is simply an illusion or a deeply meaningful metaphysical discovery is still a matter of some debate among the few scientists and philosophers who worry about that sort of thing.

The pendulum Foucault originally used in 1851 at the Panthéon was moved in 1855 to the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers in Paris. The Conservatoire includes a public museum, part of which is housed in a building that was once a church. The pendulum hangs from the ceiling of the choir, and is the museum’s star attraction. For several years during the 1990s when the museum was undergoing renovations, the pendulum was temporarily exhibited at its original home in the Panthéon, but was returned before the museum reopened in 2000.

In order to show the movement of a pendulum over longer periods of time than inertia will provide—and to satisfy museum-going crowds—most modern exhibits of Foucault’s Pendulum, including the one in the Conservatoire, use an electromagnet under the floor or platform beneath the pendulum to give it a tiny extra boost as it swings past. When I first heard about the magnets, it sounded like cheating to me—the image I had in mind was of moving magnets that influenced the direction of the swing. But in fact the magnets are circular and simply pull the pendulum very slightly toward its vertical center just as it approaches the middle of each swing, so the direction of the swing is unaffected. That in itself, I think, is a very clever piece of engineering. —Joe Kissell

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More Information about Foucault’s Pendulum…

A wonderfully detailed discussion of the invention of Foucault’s Pendulum and the science behind it can be found on this page written by Dr. Karl Kruszelnicki. A few of the details (such as the date of the Panthéon demonstration) are not quite right, but it’s nevertheless very worthwhile reading. (Interestingly, an earlier version of the same article on a different part of the site has an alternative discussion of the book Foucault’s Pendulum.) See also The Foucault’s pendulum of the “arts et métiers” museum from Paris.

Another good explanation of the physics behind Foucault’s Pendulum is The Foucault pendulumby Cleon Teunissen.

The Catholic Encyclopedia has a biography of Foucault; it’s the only place I’ve seen his second name listed as “Bertrand” and not “Bernard.”

The official Web site of the Musée des Arts et Métiers—the museum portion of the Conservatoire—is only in French but contains a great deal of helpful information.

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Umberto Eco’s 1988 novel Foucault’s Pendulum is, as I said, not really about Foucault’s Pendulum—it’s also very, very dense and occasionally frustrating, but still among my favorite books and well worth reading. If you read the novel and feel like you need to make a pilgrimage to the Conservatoire, do note that a great deal changed in the renovations. The pendulum is still there, but the periscope, for example, is not.

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Oropendola nest

I’m not much of a bird watcher, but on my first visit to Costa Rica I kept hearing this strange sound, almost like one bird trying to laugh while another one is whistling. That made me look up, and when I spotted the bird that was making the sound, I started to laugh. I had the distinct impression that it was putting on a show just to entertain the tourists, and it immediately became one of my favorite rain forest animals. The bird is called the Oropendola (often, and understandably, misspelled as “Oropendula”). It’s a largish bird that looks black from a distance but is actually dark brown, with bright yellow tail feathers. There are two species of Oropendola: the Crested Oropendola (Psarocolius decumanus) and the Montezuma Oropendola (Gymnostinops montezuma). Oropendolas are native to Central America, with some found as far north as southern Mexico and some as far south as Ecuador and Brazil. In the parts of Costa Rica I’ve visited, the Montezuma Oropendola is more common.

Both species of Oropendola share a unique and rather silly characteristic, as hinted at by the bird’s common name (roughly, “gold pendulum”) and the Latin genus name Gymnostinops. A male Oropendola stands on a thin horizontal branch, with his claws wrapped most of the way around it. Then the bird spreads his wings and swings around the branch so that he’s hanging upside down, his yellow tail feathers prominently displayed above him. Sometimes he reverses the motion and springs back to the top, and sometimes he flips all the way around the branch like a gymnast on the horizontal bar. At the same time, the bird lets out its loud, goofy call [click here to listen]. During mating season (January to May), this goes on pretty much all day, every day.

Scientists will tell you this behavior serves a purely utilitarian purpose. When a male displays his tail feathers and makes the distinctive mating call, it attracts females, end of story. (In a typical Oropendola colony, there are five females for every male, so the males keep busy.) Like most scientific explanations, this one is sensible and descriptive—but also dull and unimaginative. Thousands of bird species manage to mate without such an elaborate ritual, even if they don’t have yellow tail feathers. I have an alternative explanation for both the swinging behavior and the call: Oropendolas flip around branches because it’s fun, and the call can be translated directly into English as “Wheeeeeeee!” Watch these birds for a few hours and you’ll probably come to the same conclusion.

The name Oropendola is also suggestive of the bird’s unusual nest: a long, narrow woven basket one to two meters in length. Each nest holds just one adult female and her offspring. They hang from the highest branches of tall trees, sometimes in clusters of dozens or even hundreds.

The Birds and the Bees
As with other rain forest creatures such as sloths and leaf cutter ants, Oropendolas participate in some interesting symbiotic relationships. I’ve read two very different accounts, both involving the cowbird, which does not build its own nest but lays its eggs alongside those of the Oropendola. According to one source, Oropendolas like to nest in trees where hornets are found, because the hornets keep away the cowbirds; Oropendolas, in turn, protect the hornets from bees. Other sources say the cowbirds are a desirable neighbor, and that Oropendolas like hornets because they attack botflies, the real enemy. Botflies like to lay their eggs directly on newly hatched Oropendolas, and the botfly larvae feed on the birds. But cowbird eggs hatch before the Oropendola eggs do, and the young cowbirds feed on the botflies, thus protecting the Oropendola.

Oropendolas are not the largest or most colorful birds; most tourists in Central America’s rain forests are really looking for the Resplendent Quetzal, with its absurdly long, bright green tail. But what the Oropendola lacks in sheer flashiness it makes up for in style. —Joe Kissell

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More Information about The Oropendola…

I have two brief movies of Oropendola in action. I took these by holding my digital camera up to the lens of a telescope, so the quality isn’t the greatest, but you’ll get the general idea. [Movie 1 (3.8MB)] [Movie 2 (3.8MB)]

You can find a very complete account of the Montezuma Oropendola on The University of Michigan’s Animal Diversity Web. A different account is at The Milwaukee Public Museum (scroll down a bit). For an article on the Crested Oropendola, see The Honolulu Zoo.

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by Morgen Jahnke

Burghausen Castle

On a visit to the Louvre a few years ago, I was astounded by the amount of stuff there was to see—everything from da Vinci to Dührer to ancient Egyptian papyri. The collection is simply huge—the museum displays around 29,000 works of art in its endless halls. If you were able to stand in front of every object in the museum for only twenty seconds it would still take a full week, day and night. Not surprisingly, the “container” for all this stuff—the former Louvre palace—is gigantic as well. From its origin as a fortress during the reign of Philippe Auguste in 1190, to its present state today, successive governments and royal regimes have modified and beautified and expanded it along the length of the Seine into what it is now: a very large frame for the Mona Lisa.

After walking what seemed like miles past more Madonnas and children than I ever hoped to see, I had to keep reminding myself that there is a castle in Europe that is longer than the Louvre. Many years ago, when I was sixteen, I visited this castle while I was at a summer language camp in Bavaria. On one of our field trips, we went to Burghausen castle, 68 miles (110km) east of Munich, and 31 miles (50km) north of Salzburg. At the time, being a naive North American kid, castles and centuries-old European culture were still a novelty, and Burghausen made a huge impression on me. Heavy rain could not dampen my delight in visiting this imposing fortress, even though for my European friends it was just another castle. I was particularly wowed by its history, its size, and by the fact that Napoleon had once stayed there.

The Long and the Short
Burghausen may not have the high profile of other Bavarian castles (Neuschwanstein springs to mind), but it does have a long and complex history. Built on a ridge overlooking the Salzach river, the area was once the site of a Celtic settlement (around 100 B.C.), and then was occupied by the Romans before becoming a power centre for various Bavarian aristocratic dynasties. The longest-lived of these dynasties, the Dukes of the Wittelsbach family, ruled Bavaria from A.D. 1180 until 1918. During their reign, the castle was built up in stages (as was the Louvre), beginning in 1255 and continuing until around 1480–1490. In its finished state, the castle had six linked courtyards, and ran for over a kilometer along the ridge, making it the longest castle in Europe.

In more recent history, Napoleon made use of Burghausen’s strategic position on the banks of the Salzach during his campaign against the Austro-Hungarian Empire. From April 28 to May 2, 1809, the one-time Emperor of France quartered his 100,000 troops and their horses in the area while a pontoon bridge was built to replace the one destroyed by the Austrian troops across the river. Despite the inconvenience of having tens of thousands of soldiers hanging around the town, this visit put Burghausen on the map for a time, and its local newspaper proudly declared: “We are the center of Europe: Napoleon stayed inside our walls.”

Modern Burghausen
Besides its fascinating history, Burghausen is a wonderful place to visit for its modern incarnation as well. The Altstadt (“old town”) at the base of the fortress is extremely charming, filled with colorful row houses along the river, and narrow pedestrian-only streets replete with cozy shops. I found it fascinating that I could to travel to another country by simply crossing a bridge from the town center over the Salzach river into Austria. It was a much shorter walk than a stroll through even one of the galleries of the Louvre. —Morgen Jahnke

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More Information about Burghausen…

For a good resource on Burghausen history and general information, check out the official Burghausen site (in German), or this page on RoadsToRuins.

Burghausen was once a Castle of the Week at HeavenGames.

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I remember where I was when I heard the news that Elvis died. On August 16, 1977, I was in Washington, D.C. on vacation with my parents. We were watching TV in our hotel room while getting dressed for our day of sightseeing when the news was announced. Although they would not have said so, I suspected my parents were secretly relieved that the world was rid of a corrupting influence. As for me, I was only vaguely aware of Elvis from commercials pitching his records, and from the fact that he and my father had the same birthday. I was much more concerned that we have time to visit the National Air and Space Museum, which had just opened the previous summer, and which was to be—for me, at least—the highlight of this trip. The promise of getting to see a real spaceship, real moon rocks, and so on was, for this ten-year-old kid, incredibly exciting.

The museum was everything I had hoped it would be—and more. The last attraction we saw was, naturally, the gift shop, and I tried to get my parents to buy me as many of those amazing goodies as possible. One particular item near the checkout caught my attention: freeze-dried ice cream (“like the astronauts eat!”). At that time, Astronaut Ice Cream was not available just anywhere, and this curious novelty was too good for my mom, a confirmed ice cream junkie, to pass up. We bought a packet and marveled at how this warm, dry stuff nevertheless tasted exactly like ice cream. I had previously thought that the coolest thing about astronauts was that they got to go into space.

My experience with freeze-dried foods had, to that point, been limited to a jar of instant coffee that we kept in our cupboard for when my grandparents visited. That was the only time anyone in the house ever drank coffee (another corrupting influence, natch), and I think that one small jar must have lasted well over a decade. In later years I would come to believe that instant coffee (freeze-dried or otherwise) was an abomination, but then, as a ten-year-old I still thought digital watches were a pretty neat idea too.

Dry Ice?
Nevertheless, the idea of freeze-dried foods has always seemed somewhat incredible to me, and not just because that’s what astronauts eat. I’ve frozen lots of things and never had anything come out of the freezer completely dry and reconstitutable into its original form. And I guess I sort of carried that sense of wonder with me all these years, feeling that freeze drying was some mysterious black art that was always intended to be beyond the comprehension of mere mortals. It actually never occurred to me until yesterday that I could discover how exactly it was done, so I did. I was a bit surprised at the answer—and also surprised at some of the other uses to which this process is put.

Freeze drying, (also known as lyophilization) starts, logically enough, with freezing. The mundane process of converting the water molecules in a substance to their solid state is in fact much more of an art than I’d suspected. Depending on what you’re freezing and what its intended use is, you may wish to freeze it very quickly (so that small ice crystals form), very slowly (so that large ice crystals form), by immersion in a cold liquid such as liquid nitrogen, or simply by exposure to cold air. After freezing, though, the substance is subjected to a vacuum before being very gently heated. A precise combination of pressure and temperature causes sublimation, in which the ice crystals turn directly into water vapor without passing through a liquid phase. This vapor is then condensed and drained away, and the temperature and pressure returned to normal. Although this description is somewhat of an oversimplification, the result is a substance that is almost completely devoid of moisture, and yet not damaged in any other way.

Time Capsule
There are, of course, other ways to dry foods, such as setting them out in the sun for a few days or using a convection drying apparatus. But such conventional dehydration processes present some problems. For one thing, they can take a long time, during which bacteria and naturally occurring enzymes begin to degrade the quality of the food, or even cause it to spoil. For another, the heat can partially cook the food—perhaps not the desired result. And conventional dehydration is rarely complete, leaving some liquid water molecules still present in the food. Freeze drying, on the other hand, removes virtually all the water, which in turn prevents bacterial or enzymatic activity—locking the food into a state of suspended animation for as long as ten years. Add water, and the food assumes more or less its original taste, texture, and nutritional qualities—though some foods, such as lettuce, rehydrate poorly because they have such a high water content in the first place. Interestingly, freeze drying so carefully preserves the cellular structure of animal and plant matter that any bacteria that were present before the food was dried may reanimate when water is added, restarting the spoilage process that freeze drying put on hold.

Although food—whether coffee, ice cream, or complete meals (for astronauts or campers)—is the best-known application of freeze-drying, other substances that can degrade too rapidly when moist are also candidates for the process. This includes pharmaceuticals, blood plasma, and even roses. The latest fad, though, is using the freeze-drying process on somewhat larger items: pets. You can’t freeze-dry Spot and bring him back to life later by tossing him in the shower, but if your pet has already died, some companies will preserve it using a taxidermy process that includes freeze-drying. From there, the inevitable next step was to human corpses, and sure enough, a Swedish company recently announced plans to offer just such a service, which they claim is much more environmentally friendly than either embalming or cremation. They’ll immerse your corpse in liquid nitrogen, shatter it into tiny pieces with ultrasonic waves, dry these particles, and then bury the final, compostable product in a coffin in a shallow grave—so that you can be directly reincarnated as, say, a tree. Just think: If they’d done that with the King, he really could still be alive today. —Joe Kissell

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More Information about Freeze Drying…

To learn more about freeze drying, see:

Other interesting applications of freeze drying:

  • Flying B Bar Ranch sells freeze-dried roses
  • Anglers Freeze-dry Preservation will freeze-dry your pet when it dies, a variation on the standard process of taxidermy…
  • …and when you pass away, at least if it’s more than a few years from now and you live in Sweden, you can have yourself freeze-dried and then composted.

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