Archive for October 2018

Leaf cutter ants

A different kind of deforestation

I’m a city person at heart, but every now and then I like to get far away from the chaos and soak in some nature. On the two trips I’ve taken to Costa Rica, I’ve found it ideal for such a getaway. It’s quite a contrast from my usual environment—everything from the food to the climate is different, not to mention the language, driving habits, and so on. But we adapt rapidly, as humans tend to do. After a few days, we become accustomed to the heat and, to a lesser extent, the humidity. We get used to seeing the occasional frog or lizard in the shower. The sights, sounds, and smells which were so foreign just a week earlier begin to seem commonplace. “Honey, look! Up in the tree!” one of us will say. What, another sloth, a family of monkeys, a toucan? Ho hum. Been there, done that. The novelty of such sightings wears off much too quickly.

The Ants Go Marching One by One, Hurrah, Hurrah

Such was the case with leaf cutter ants. At first you think it’s an optical illusion. You’ll glance at the ground and detect a line of movement, just a rustle. You look at a bare strip in the grass and think: The leaves can’t possibly be marching across the ground. You try to figure out what you’re seeing, whether it’s moving plants or plant-shaped bugs of some kind. On closer inspection—much closer—you see tiny ants, almost blending into the soil, carrying comparatively huge slices of leaves in a long column. Ah: leaf cutter ants. Yes, I think I read about them somewhere. They climb trees, slice up the leaves, and carry them off to their nests. Got it. Once you’ve figured out what it is, it doesn’t seem especially remarkable.

Everywhere we went in Costa Rica—rain forest, beach, and everywhere in between—we saw these long columns of tiny marching leaves. They could be fun to watch if you had nothing better to do. Once I dropped a couple of new leaves onto a trail, just to see what would happen. Sure enough, within a few minutes the ants had checked them out, picked them up, and started carrying them toward home.

Hats Off to the Soldier

A week later on a nature hike near the Arenal Volcano, our guide, Paolo, stopped the group when we came to a column of leaf cutter ants. By this time I had seen dozens of these, so I wasn’t paying much attention. Paolo picked up one of the larger ants—a soldier—and asked me for my hat. “Excuse me?” I said. I couldn’t comprehend what my hat had to do with the ant. He repeated the question. “Your hat—can I borrow it?” I stood there puzzled for a few seconds, then took off my hat and handed it to him. Paolo held the chin strap of my hat up to the ant, which pinched it between its mandibles. Then, still holding onto the ant, Paolo let go of the hat. The ant held it firmly. OK, now I was paying attention. Watching an ant carry a leaf a few times its size is mildly impressive the first time, but seeing an ant hold my hat—this was something else altogether.

The ant was apparently unharmed, but undoubtedly suffering the ant equivalent of psychological trauma. Paolo put it back on the trail and picked up another one. This time he repeated the trick with a branch. Not a twig, mind you, but a hefty branch nearly a meter long and perhaps two centimeters at its thickest point. The ant held it for only a few seconds, but that was more than enough for Paolo to make his point. These little guys are seriously strong. The mandibles seem to have a mind of their own, too: they’ll keep holding on just as tightly even if the ant dies. Because of this, they are sometimes used to close wounds in a pinch (so to speak). The technique is to hold the ant so its mandibles pinch either side of a cut, then twist the body off, leaving the head in place. A bit gruesome, but it makes a fair substitute for a suture.

The World’s Smallest Agriculturalists

This was just the beginning of the surprising things we were to learn about leaf cutter ants. The most obvious question we had was what they did with all those leaves once they got where they were going. I figured they either ate them or used them as a building material. In fact they do neither: their digestive systems can’t break down the cellulose in leaves, and they live in underground nests (which, by the way, can be enormous, holding as many as 10,000,000 ants). When the ants arrive home with their leaves, they hand them off to specialized workers that chop them up into even smaller pieces, cover them with their own droppings, and use them as a medium for growing the fungus that the ants actually eat. In other words, the ants are basically fungus farmers.

The ants and the fungus form a textbook symbiotic relationship—each depends on, and benefits, the other. The fungus thrives on the food provided by the ants, which also give it a cool, moist environment to grow in and weed out any other plants competing for its food and space. The ants also enable the fungus to propagate, which it would otherwise be unable to do. In exchange, the fungus serves as food for the ants.

Flies Can Be a Headache

Another thing we noticed was that much smaller ants would often ride on top of the leaf fragments as they made their way along the path in the jaws of the delivery ants (known as foragers). Paolo told us they serve a sort of quality control function. That may be true, but further research showed them to have an even more important and much weirder role. It seems that a bug called the coffin fly likes to land on an ant and lay eggs on its head. When the eggs hatch, the larvae burrow into the head and feed on the ant’s brain. There being so little brain to go around, there isn’t enough for both the ant and the fly, and the ant dies. Ordinarily, ants can defend themselves against the files, but not when they’re carrying a giant leaf. So the tiny tag-along ants, known as minima, defend the foragers against the nasty coffin flies.

Leaf cutter ants will travel quite a distance—up to 100 meters from their nest—to locate just the right plants to defoliate. Quite often I watched the ants pass by what appeared to my unsophisticated eye to be perfectly yummy trees right near their nest. Apparently the ants have developed a subtle art of leaf selection, choosing only the ones most conducive to the growth of their food. A large colony of leaf cutter ants can bring in as much as 34kg (75 lb.) of leaves per day, comparable in mass to the daily grass intake of a cow.

Although leaf cutter ants are sometimes regarded as a pest—they damage both food crops and ornamental plants—they do much more good for the ecosystem than damage. They aerate the soil and produce nutrient-rich fertilizers. The symbiotic relationship they have with the fungus they use for food is a favorite research subject among biologists. And, of course, for jaded tourists like me, they provide both entertainment and a reminder that there are more interesting things around us than meet the eye.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on April 3, 2003, and again in a slightly revised form on January 31, 2005.

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

A stand selling edible insects

Although I wouldn’t refer to myself as squeamish, the idea of eating bugs does push some buttons for me. I’m aware, of course, that lots of people do eat bugs, that they can be an excellent and inexpensive source of protein, and that I am subject to the cultural biases I grew up with, my best efforts notwithstanding. I’ve also frequently seen edible insects sold as snack food in supermarkets and convenience stores, so nothing about this seems shocking to me anymore. It’s just, you know, not the first (or second, or fiftieth) place my mind jumps when I’m feeling peckish. However, I will say that if I were disposed to try some insects, covering them with chocolate would certainly be a psychological help.

Image credit: Zac Bowling [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

Burnt wreckage of British Airtours Flight 28M, which inspired Maurice Ward to invent Starlite

The mystery miracle heatproof plastic

In the early 1990s, magazine articles and television shows in Great Britain and the United States ran a series of stories about an incredible new invention: a type of plastic that could withstand virtually any amount of heat. The material’s properties confounded scientists, but even more amazing was that its creator, Maurice Ward, had no academic credentials—he was, in fact, a former hairdresser from North Yorkshire, England. Ward saw a news story about how most of the deaths in an airplane accident had been caused by the toxic fumes from burning plastics. Having spent time working on new formulations for shampoo and conditioner in his home laboratory, he decided to try his hand at concocting a more flame-retardant plastic, and after a series of experiments that ran from 1986 to 1989, he came up with a formula that seemed to be impervious to any sort of heat. His granddaughter suggested that he call the stuff “Starlite.”

That’s Hot

Ward’s initial attempts to interest chemical companies in his new product were entirely unsuccessful; no one took the outrageous claims of this amateur inventor seriously. Then, on the inauspicious date of April 1, 1993, a respectable defense journal called International Defense Review published an article by Pamela Pohling-Brown titled “Taking the heat astonishing results with new material,” detailing the results of several tests by government agencies. The tests showed, among other things, that a thin piece of Starlite wouldn’t burn even when subjected to temperatures as high as 10,000°C—that’s hotter than the surface of the sun. The material withstood even simulated nuclear blasts and high-powered lasers. That journal article, and others that followed it, began to generate a great deal of interest in Starlite, especially in the defense industry.

One particularly striking quality of Starlite was that it didn’t merely fail to combust; it also insulated astonishingly well. In a demonstration on a BBC television show called Tomorrow’s World in 1993, the presenter held a welder’s blowtorch to an egg that had been coated with an invisibly thin layer of Starlite. After several minutes the flame was removed, and the egg was broken to reveal that it was still raw on the inside. In another demonstration, this time on NBC’s Dateline in the United States, a piece of Starlite was shown to be cool enough to touch just seconds after exposure to a blowtorch.

Burning Questions

At the time of all this publicity, the only questions seemed to be which company or government agency would get the rights to manufacture Starlite and how many billions of dollars Ward would receive in return. It would only be a matter of time before Starlite was commercialized in some form…spacecraft would have inexpensive, lightweight, and super-durable heat shields; devastating building fires could be made a thing of the past; everything from home appliances and furniture to missiles would be revolutionized by this miraculous heatproof material.

But then something weird happened: nothing. After a few years of relative silence, some vague reports circulated that Ward was actively working with several different manufacturers on the commercial development of Starlite, but also that Ward’s primary interest had recently turned to harness racing, of all things. Then both Ward and Starlite seemed to disappear from the media almost entirely. A 2004 article about Starlite in The Guardian noted that nothing new had been heard since 1997 and ended with the unanswered question: “But whatever happened to Starlite?”

As a matter of fact, it’s not entirely true that nothing has happened after 1997. Maurice Ward was, for a time, the registrant of, a site that from roughly 2004 to 2007 contained useful information about Starlite, such as links to media reports and lists of potential applications. In 2006, a page on the site said: “Delayed for more than 15 years by red tape and incubation in private industry, Starlite has found a second chance to come to market through an alliance with Chris Bennett, an entrepreneur in Austin, Texas.” Around the same time, articles all over the web that previously contained information about Starlite started to disappear somewhat mysteriously, suggesting that Ward had asked for their removal. (I found copies of many of them using resources such as the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.)

Flame On

Despite Ward’s claims, it should come as no surprise that numerous conspiracy theories arose to explain Starlite’s strange absence from the spotlight. Some people suspected that the U.S. or British government has decided that Starlite should be classified, and has taken steps to suppress all public information about it—or that some huge corporation or foreign power had bought out Ward and is trying to keep things quiet to prevent espionage and competition. Others were convinced that the only possible reason Starlite was never commercialized was that it had been an elaborate hoax all along.

My own research suggested that the real explanation was much more prosaic. Given the large number of well-documented tests by agencies of various governments and first-hand reports from numerous scientists and engineers, I have no doubt at all that Starlite’s claimed properties were genuine, notwithstanding the inventor’s background. Back in 1993, reports were that Ward refused to consider any deal for commercial production of Starlite that didn’t involve his maintaining at least 51% ownership—and clearly, he has always believed that his invention was worth billions. At the same time, Ward was hyperprotective of his intellectual property. He declined all requests to provide samples for testing that might enable a company to analyze the substance and potentially discover its composition. He never patented it, either, because doing so would require him to reveal his formula. As of the early 1990s, at least, Ward refused even to allow the formula to be written down; he said that only he and a couple of family members knew it, and it was kept only in their heads. That’s hard-core: not even the recipes for Coca-Cola and Kentucky Fried Chicken are that secret!

To be sure, Starlite was undoubtedly worth a fortune, and Ward had every right to protect his own interests. However, some argued that if Starlite was everything it was cracked up to be, its potential to save lives was so great that it would be ethically wrong to prevent its manufacture just for the sake of a bit more profit. Interestingly, a page on the website back in 2006 said: “As a humanitarian, Ward wants to see his invention used for the public good.” That might have been true; my take on the matter at the time was that financial greed probably wasn’t the issue so much as a relentless desire to maintain control.

The Plot Thickens

In 2008, I published the first version of this article here on Interesting Thing of the Day. A couple of days later, I received an interesting email from Don Schnell, who related the following (reprinted with permission):

In the [late] 1990s, I and a partner from Calgary formed a company named Starlite Safety Solutions to market Maurice’s product. We brought Maurice to Calgary and introduced him to a group of investors and pitched several proposals for marketing his product including one involving the University of Calgary and the establishment of a research and development centre. That little effort cost us $80,000 CDN. My partner knew Maurice personally, and if anyone had a chance to do a deal with Maurice it was us. Like some of the thoroughbreds I have owned over the years (mostly hayburners) Maurice proved to be very unpredictable. The more we offered, the more he seemed to want. We went way beyond what reasonable investors would do, but I have a personal philosophy to help my fellow man and Starlite would help so much. But alas no deal would satisfy his continuously increasing agenda. In short, he was a moving target. It does not surprise me that it is not yet on the market. There was some question as to whether or not he could replicate the formula, and also, the British Government indicated to us that they may declare it a secret product. I have since closed my file on it, but have never lost interest in it.

I have videos of tests that were conducted and it is truly an amazing product. I was told that he had participated in some discussions with NASA for obvious reasons. We were working with fire retardant products at that time.

A few months later I received a phone call from none other than Maurice Ward himself. Back in those days, I was running Google ads on this site, and some of the ads that popped up on the page with this article were for companies he considered competitors. He thought I was in league with those companies to cause him financial harm. After I explained that the ads were placed algorithmically without my involvement, that I had no desire to harm him, and that I’d be happy to exclude any advertisers from that page that bothered him, he seemed satisfied and we had a nice chat. He assured me that, despite various setbacks and delays in the past, efforts were underway to commercialize Starlite.

Then, in early 2009 I received yet another interesting email, this time from Pamela Pohling-Brown (again, reprinted with permission):

Quite by chance I came across your article of Jan 2008 on Starlite which makes mention of mine in International Defense Review (part of the Jane’s group) in the early 1990s (’93 or ’94). I can assure you that the article was not a hoax, despite the date of publication of that issue—it was a monthly magazine and we published on the same day each month. It was perhaps unfortunate that such a startling article should have been published in that issue but it had been on the stocks for several weeks, and in any case IDR prided itself on original and exclusive material and high-level contacts, and that would have been by no means the only interesting piece in that issue—it was just the one that aroused the most attention in the general public.

However, we did consider that we had a scoop on Starlite and that nothing much had emerged in the public domain before that. The person who drew my attention to it was Professor Sir Ronald Mason, an impeccable source as well as a good friend and contact of many years’ standing. The sources who supplied the test results were also unimpeachable. I was unable to witness a test, for obvious reasons, but did talk to Maurice Ward at some length and formed the opinion that his claims were to be taken seriously, but that he was a true English eccentric. He subsequently formed relationships with various defence companies, including Hunting, but was afraid that he would be fobbed off with a relatively meagre lump sum while any company he dealt with would profit much much more and take the credit. And so some at least seemed to want to do. So afraid of this was he that it was said that his daughter accompanied him to tests and meetings with a hoover (vacuum cleaner) in case small pieces should become detached. I cannot testify to the truth of this, but you indicated something of the same in your own piece.

Sir Ronald Mason is still active and a still a respected scientist and both I and my then editor, Rupert Pengelley, still have our wits about us. I always hoped to see the material in use as, to the best of my knowledge, it would revolutionise safety in many many walks of life. I fear, however, that it may have now somehow been classified and indeed possibly suppressed if it renders some current project/research area null; this was another of Maurice’s fears and I have little doubt that he only agreed to our publishing anything at the time because he thought that some measure of public attention would make suppression by whatever body less easy. At the time we joked about The Man in the White Suit—a British film of the 1950s.

Hot Property

Despite all the tests and public claims, it may be that Starlite had a secret flaw. There’s an intriguing hint, left by an anonymous commenter on an article about Ward, that Starlite’s fireproof properties may have been too short-lived to be of commercial use, and that Ward’s inability to overcome this issue was in fact the whole problem. But we may never know the whole truth. In May 2011, Maurice Ward died at age 78. Since then, his family has provided no further public information about Starlite, suggesting that they didn’t have the formula after all. Ward’s blog, last updated in 2009, still gets occasional comments from people hoping he’s still alive and still working on the product.

During Ward’s lifetime, more than one person tried to steal the Starlite formula, and numerous large organizations are rumored to have spent vast sums of money trying to replicate it themselves. Ward himself provided a few clues to Starlite’s composition, which may have given competitors a good place to start. According to the article in International Defense Review that started all the publicity, “It consists of a variety of (organic) polymers and co-polymers with both organic and inorganic additives, including borates and small quantities of ceramics and other special barrier ingredients—up to 21 in all. Perhaps uniquely for a thermal and blast-proof material, it is not wholly inorganic but up to 90 per cent organic.” Ward also mentioned that it could be mixed in an ordinary blender. Following what sounds like a similar recipe, Canadian inventor Troy Hurtubise created his own heat-resistant product, which he called firepaste. It appeared to have many of the same characteristics as Starlite—it was resistant not only to fire but to commercialization, and was shrouded in similar secrecy. Hurtubise died in June 2018, and I have no idea if anyone else knows how to create firepaste.

I’m unsure what lessons are to be learned from this tale, but I find it incredibly sad that for whatever combination of reasons, a technology that might have saved many lives has seemingly been lost forever.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on January 21, 2008.

Image credit: By Her Majesty’s Stationery Office (C) Crown Copyright 1989 [OGL 3], via Wikimedia Commons

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

Yorkshire puddings with gravy

Well, I just don’t know what to think about this. October 13 is National Yorkshire Pudding Day—in the United States, a country in which Yorkshire pudding is all but unheard-of. To be honest, I don’t know if I’ve ever eaten a Yorkshire pudding, and considering culinary proclivities, that fact shocks even me. For those of you who, like me, grew up in a country where Yorkshire does not exist and the word pudding exclusively means a sweet, milk-based, custard-like dessert, let me acquaint you with Yorkshire pudding. It’s neither a custard nor a dessert; it’s sort of a pastry—a batter baked in a pan or muffin tin in such a way that it puffs up on the sides and hollows out in the middle. This is a savory food, often served for Sunday lunch, and usually with gravy. If you feel like trying to make Yorkshire pudding today, I’m sure you will find suitable instructions on the web. If you are in North America and hope to find it in a restaurant…good luck!

Image credit: By RjCan [CC BY-SA 4.0], from Wikimedia Commons

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

The French Quarter in New Orleans

But wait, there’s more!

One day in Paris, Morgen and I met some friends for dinner at a restaurant that had gotten some very good reviews. The owner of the restaurant arrived at our table to take our orders, and we told him the prix fixe set menu sounded good. He looked strangely concerned, as though we foreigners couldn’t possibly know what we were getting ourselves into. “You understand,” he asked, “that this meal includes an aperitif, an entree, a main course, a dessert, and coffee…and an unlimited quantity of wine?” We nodded and assured him that we knew the routine. He smiled slyly and said, “Ah bon. There will also be…some surprises.”

A few moments later, a small dish of sausages arrived at our table—an amuse bouche, or a sort of pre-appetizer—along with some fresh bread. Then the advertised courses appeared, one by one, until finally, after coffee, the owner returned with a bottle and four small glasses in his hands and a conspiratorial expression on his face. “A little something to conclude your meal,” he offered, and poured us each a glass of marc, a potent digestif distilled from the bits of grape skin left over when wine is made. Splendid. We would have enjoyed the meal thoroughly even without the unadvertised extras, but the unexpected attention to detail left us with an even warmer feeling about the restaurant.

Little Things Mean a Lot

In New Orleans, the term that would be used to describe “a little something extra” of this sort is lagniappe, pronounced “LAN-yap.” There is an old custom among merchants in New Orleans to add a small, nearly trivial gift to an order—particularly for large purchases or repeat customers. The word “lagniappe” originally comes from the Quechua word yapay (“to give more”), which led to yapa (“gift”), and then to the American Spanish la ñapa (“the gift”). Although the term lagniappe is not used in, say, Paris, the underlying principle appears in many forms in many cultures—including the “baker’s dozen” that was once the norm in North America.

There’s a subtle yet powerful psychological principle at work here: the amount or quality of something you actually receive is not as important as how it compares to what you were anticipating. For example, let’s say you see an ad on TV for a salad steamer and think, “Wow, I have to buy this.” When your package arrives in the mail, you discover it contains not just what you ordered, but as a special thank-you gift, a certificate redeemable for a free head of lettuce. Because what you got was more than you thought you paid for, you’re likely to feel happier with your purchase and more favorably disposed toward the merchant. On the other hand, if the merchant had promised “free lettuce with purchase” and you expected a fresh head of lettuce in the box, you might be disappointed and annoyed to find that you have to make an extra trip to the store to get what you paid for. The actual contents of the package may have been the same in both cases, but your reaction was different because of the expectations you had.

As Seen on TV

This principle can be a very effective marketing tool if used correctly; it can also, of course, be abused. If you have three products that are all cheaply made and collectively worth US$10, how do you sell the set for twice that? Easy: hype up just one of the products and advertise it at the “low, low” price of “only” $20. Then, dramatically, add: “But wait, there’s more!” and mention, as if benevolently bestowing excess riches on a favorite nephew, that you’re going to throw in the other two products “absolutely free!” This strategy works surprisingly well, all because the initial step of setting expectations was executed so cunningly. This is also why some hardware and software developers in the computer industry have adopted a mantra: “Underpromise and overdeliver.” What counts is not so much the feature set and delivery date of a product, but rather how the reality compares to what your customer (or your manager) was expecting.

This is not to say, of course, that the notion of lagniappe is always or even usually misapplied; merchants who are generous—or just very savvy—may well give you more than you pay for. For that matter, you don’t even need to be selling something to apply the principle of lagniappe—it is equally effective when giving gifts, inviting friends over for dinner, or even writing a book. But for lagniappe to function most effectively, it should really be unexpected. (This is why I’m perturbed at New Orleans merchants who go out of their way to advertise “We Offer Lagniappe!” on their signs—that seems to me to be missing the point.) When the “little something extra” is a surprise, it can truly delight the recipient.

A Little Something Extra

You may be aware that writing about interesting things is not my day job. I’ve made my living for the past 15+ years primarily as an author of technology-related books and articles, and in 2017 I purchased my erstwhile publisher, Take Control Books, so I’m now running the entire business—publishing (and sometimes editing) other people’s books, in addition to writing my own. We have how-to books on all sorts of tech topics, including passwords, online privacy, your digital legacy, running a paperless office, increasing your productivity, and many more. A large portion of our titles focus on Apple platforms, so you’ll also see quite a few books about topics specific to macOS, iOS, the Apple Watch, and Apple TV. In any case, there’s something for everyone. They’re quality books, written by experts, and all available inexpensively. That brings me to the lagniappe I’d like to offer you, as a reader of Interesting Thing of the Day: a 30% discount on all our books. But just one or as many as you like. The links in this paragraph will automatically apply a 30% discount to your order when you click Check Out, or you can enter the coupon code ITOTD. Enjoy!

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on June 8, 2003, and again in a slightly revised form on February 12, 2005.

Image credit: By Sami99tr [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], from Wikimedia Commons

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day