Archive for April 2019

A portion of Hong Kong's Central–Mid-Levels Escalator

Hong Kong’s moving landmark

I have very fond memories of my first (and only, so far) visit to Hong Kong in 2007. I was extremely impressed by the architecture and scenery, and by the vibrant street life on display throughout its many neighborhoods. As a first-time visitor, I also appreciated how easy it was to navigate, and how technology was used to solve problems in novel ways.

I first got a sense of this when I passed through Immigration, and had my body temperature scanned remotely to see if I was running a fever (important for a region that was then dealing with avian flu). I was further impressed with Hong Kong’s technological prowess when I discovered I could purchase a stored-value transit pass, called an Octopus card, which I could not only use on trains, buses, and trams, but could also use to buy snacks from a convenience store or food from certain restaurants. I found out later that locals can also buy rings, watches, and even cell phones that contain the Octopus chip, enabling them to simply wave their hands (or phones) over the special card readers to make a purchase. That may all sound unimpressive nowadays, but it was pretty advanced for 2007, to say nothing of 1997, when it was introduced.

While all these things are wonderful, my favorite piece of technology that makes life easier for visitors (and residents of course) is the Central–Mid-Levels Escalator. Stretching from the Central district of Hong Kong Island up to the heights of the Mid-Levels residential neighborhoods, the escalator is a godsend for footsore travelers.

Escalating the Situation

The Central–Mid-Levels escalator system, which opened in 1993, consists of 18 escalators and three moving sidewalks, and measures 800 meters (1/2 mile) in length, making it the longest outdoor covered escalator in the world. It takes about 20 minutes to ride the escalators from the bottom to the top (or vice versa), but it takes less than that if you walk while they move, as most people do.

The escalators run from 6 A.M. to midnight, descending for the first 4 hours (bringing morning commuters down from upper levels), and then reversing direction around 10:00 A.M. to carry passengers up the hill. There are entrances and exits at each street it intersects, making it easy to stop at whichever level you choose.

Up, Up and Hooray

During the time we spent in Hong Kong, we rode the escalators almost every day, finding them an extremely useful way to get from our hotel midway up the slope of Victoria Peak to the center of activity downtown and back again. One of the things I enjoyed most about riding the escalators was the opportunity to peek at the activity taking place on either side, from apartment life on the upper levels to the bustling bars, restaurants, and stores on the levels closer to the center of the city.

While for many people who rode the escalators alongside us, it was just an ordinary commute to work, we found the journey to be a fascinating glimpse of urban life in Hong Kong. Not only that, but the ease, efficiency, and simplicity of the system made us, foreigners though we were, feel right at home.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on February 26, 2007.

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

A coffin borne by pallbearers

Having the last laugh first

When my mother returned from a vacation to Florida with her sister several years ago, I called to ask how it went. “Oh, we had the best time!” she said. “We spent most of the trip planning our funerals. It was hilarious!” Well, that wasn’t quite what I was expecting to hear. On previous vacations my mom has gone on cruises, and even tried parasailing, and I thought I had a pretty good idea of what activities she considered fun. Funeral planning was a bit of a surprise. It’s not that she’s ill or expecting to die soon. But, as she put it, “If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.”

I’ve seen some of those late-night commercials trying to sell funeral insurance, with the idea being that you can save your grieving loved ones the considerable expense associated with funerals and burial. But that wasn’t what my mother had in mind at all. (In fact, she made a point of saying that since she’d relieved the family of the burden of funeral planning, the least we could do is pay for it!) Rather, she’d gone to some local funeral parlors and asked them for pre-planning forms she could fill out, detailing her background and family contact information, and specifying her wishes for things like burial versus cremation, type of casket, a minister to preside over the ceremony, and so on.

Survivor: The Afterlife

What made this all so funny? For starters, these forms—which, mind you, are intended to be filled out by the person on whose behalf the services will be performed—often begin by asking you to list your survivors. That whole idea gave Mom and Aunt Ruth the giggles—how would they know, now, who will survive them? But even though you may have to leave a few sections blank, planning your own funeral gives you the chance to approach the details of how your death will be observed with a rare mixture of detachment and subjectivity. In other words, while you’re alive and healthy, you can have fun with the activity in a way that your bereaved loved ones, under the stress of the moment, never could.

Most pre-planning forms ask for basic things like whether you’d prefer a religious, secular, or military funeral. But you can get as detailed as you’d like. List the music you want to have played or sung. What kinds of flowers you want, if any. Scripture passages, poems, or other readings you’d like to have presented. Names of potential pallbearers. And even details about what clothes or jewelry you’ll be wearing while lying in that casket, whether you’ll have your glasses on, and what items should be added or removed before the casket goes in the ground. (My dad always joked that he wanted to be buried with a plate of spare ribs. I’m sorry to say the family didn’t oblige. On the other hand, my mom, whose first name is Grace, has insisted in writing that the song “Amazing Grace” not be sung at her funeral under any circumstances. I feel pretty certain that wish will be honored.)

Lay-Away Plan

Although it has always been possible to state your own funeral preferences, either in a will or elsewhere, the trend of doing more involved funeral planning for oneself seems to be picking up steam. The topic is covered in various books and websites, and of course most funeral directors can supply you with brochures, forms, and other information about their particular services. But for some people, merely planning out a memorial service is not enough. Among the other things you can now arrange are the following:

  • Rebuild Atlantis. I am absolutely not making this up. You can have your ashes encased in concrete and used as one of the building blocks of an artificial reef being constructed off the coast of Miami. The Neptune Memorial Reef was designed as an underwater garden that looks like some artist’s idea of Atlantis, and you can spend eternity there if you want.

  • Go into space. It’s not just for celebrity zillionaires and starship engineers. You, too, can have a small portion of your ashes sent into space by Celestis Memorial Spaceflights. Prices start at just $2,495 for a brief trip into zero gravity and back; $4,995 for a lengthy stay in orbit; or $12,500 to have your ashes sent to the moon—or even into deep space on a spacecraft powered by a solar sail.

  • Cut glass. If you’d like to keep your eternal remains close to home, you can have your ashes compressed into an artificial diamond by a company called LifeGem. That’s right: you can wear Grandma around your neck. Prices start at $2,490 and go up to $24,999. Only slightly less creepy: the same company can make gems from a lock of someone’s hair—dead or alive.

One step my mother has not yet taken—but plans to—is writing her own obituary. She wants to make sure it hits all the most interesting and important highlights. Unfortunately, you can’t control everything that will happen after your death. Maybe it’ll rain the day you’re buried; maybe the cat will knock over your urn of ashes; maybe your eulogy will have irritating grammatical errors. These things happen. You may not get the very last laugh, but you can at least make the Reaper a bit less grim.

A final tip, if I may. Even the most thorough will or funeral plan may omit details about what should happen to your digital assets when you die—all your photos, email, social media accounts, files, backups, and so on. I deal with all of the above in my book Take Control of Your Digital Legacy, and as a reader of Interesting Thing of the Day you can get it for 30% off. Enjoy!

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on August 13, 2007.

Image credit: Pixabay

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

A 1924 Doble Model E at the Henry Ford Museum

The steam engine’s last stand

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

Fill It Up…with Water

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

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

Full Steam Ahead

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

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

Driven to Perfection

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

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

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

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

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

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

Aerial view of Jungfrau Park

The theme park that aliens built

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

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

The Gods Must Be Crazy

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

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

One Ring

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

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

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

Aliens vs. Zombies

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

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

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

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

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

Take Control of Siri cover

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

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

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

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

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day