Petroushka\’s Miscellany

On Human Ingenuity

For the past six years, the New York Times Magazine has put out a “Year in Ideas” issue that compiles “the peaks and valleys of ingenuity—the human cognitive faculty deployed with intentions good and bad, purposes serious and silly, consequences momentous and morbid.” Humans are a species that defines itself in large part by the possession of reason, basically the ability to have ideas. And some of the things that we most value about ourselves are the remarkable ideas we have had, from the wheel, to medicine, to human rights, to how to make a good baguette, a delectable wine or a sublimely smelly cheese. Thank you, NYT Magazine, for choosing to catalogue the highlights of human history this way instead of just through our wars and the ever-more intricate ways we invent to kill each other. It brightened my December, and I hope it will brighten yours as well. In case it gets swallowed by the archives monster, I include a summary of some of the brightest and strangest ideas below.

  • Dan Nachbar has invented a one-man blimp. So it’s bigger than the Globe theatre when it’s in the air, big deal. Isn’t this what we’ve all been waiting for since the heady days of our youth when we watched with longing as the Goodyear blimp floated gently above us? Unlike a hot-air balloon, you can drive this zeppelin. Unlike the giant blimps we know and love, it can fly at low altitudes and low speeds. It can be launched from a back yard and then fold up into a tiny package (well, relatively) when not in use. For a measly $200,000, it’s a steal.
  • A London architecture firm, the Facility, has had the brilliant idea of putting generators under major pedestrian traffic areas to capture the vibration of our footsteps and make them into electricity. For example, at 3-5 watts per footstep, and with 34,000 people using the London Underground at rush-hour, you can generate enough to “power all the lighting and audio equipment within the building” says the firm’s director. They’re also building an energy-harvesting staircase and developing a way to capture the vibrations of trains going through subway tunnels in order to power street lights. You’ll see the generators soon in a place near you: the gym, the street, even your clothes.
  • Chicago chef Grant Achatz, at Alinea restaurant, has been feeding our senses of taste and smell by serving up such fabulous concoctions as: poached lobster and mushrooms with a cloud of rosemary-scented steam; air-pillows filled with the aroma of coffee; pheasant, Brussel sprouts and white beans served over a steaming bowl of oak leaves, pumpkin seeds, apples, cinnamon and hay; rabbit served with the scent of burnt oak leaves in an overturned glass. The scents complement the taste of the food, and make for an unforgettable dining experience.
  • Dutch radio DJ Bart Plantenga has made a CD called “The Rough Guide to Yodel”. Apparently yodeling is a much more widespread art form than we knew. It’s common from the Arctic to Bollywood, from the Hmong farmlands of Wisconsin to the dances of Mexico. It is not, as we previously suspected, the sole province of Alpine mountains with frisking goats and men in lederhosen. The thing all yodelers have in common, apparently, is that they celebrate the transition from the “chest voice” to the “head voice”, whereas other singers try to hide it. For those interested more in details than divas, he also wrote a book: Yodel-Ay-Ee-Oooo: The Secret History of Yodeling Around the World. These are essential gifts for the Christmas season.
  • Cambridge, Massachusetts, has commissioned art to reduce speeds at a busy intersection. They hired artist Wen-ti Tsen to paint a giant circular mural in the middle of the intersection in the hopes that it will make drivers slow from 30 miles an hour to 25, and thereby increase pedestrians’ chances of surviving if the drivers hit them. Early results show that the mural is working. The only downside: that the mural is not, as the artist originally considered proposing, a giant trompe-l’oeil pothole, or something similarly nerve-wracking for speeders.
  • Mark Osterloh of Arizona has been campaigning to turn ballots into lottery tickets. It would work like this: your ballot makes you eligible to win a million dollars—if you vote. If 2 million people vote (like they did in Arizona in the 2004 Presidential election), your chances of winning are 1 in 2 million, which is better than most lotteries. Every two years about $2.7 million accrues in Arizona’s unclaimed lottery fund. This would be the election jackpot, and would even provide enough for supplementary prizes of, say, $1,000, to increase the odds of winning even further and thereby encourage more people to get out and vote. It could increase the turn-out among poor voters, who are currently among the most underrepresented, strengthen democracy and inject some cash into the economy. So far, though, no one has taken the bait and it remains, for the moment, just an idea.
  • It’s true: you’re more likely to get hit by a car or bus if you wear a bicycle helmet than if you don’t. When psychologist Ian Walker tested this cyclist superstition, he found that drivers came 8.5 cm closer to him when he had his helmet on than when he left it at home. He suspects its because when drivers see the helmet, they judge the cyclist to be an experienced and skilful rider who doesn’t need as wide a berth as someone without a helmet. The solution: retrain drivers to give helmeted riders space. In the meantime, Walker is not wearing a helmet when he rides.

For more ideas, check out these resources:

  • Ideas, a CBC Radio show “about contemporary thought”, which has a podcast updated every Monday for those of you who don’t live in Canada
  • The Dictionary of the History of Ideas—such as agnosticism, alchemy, structuralism and satire—which has been digitized and is available free online for all to peruse.
  • The Boston Globe’s Ideas section, which “features colorful reporting and probing commentary on the ideas, people, books and trends that are shaking up the intellectual world” (you can sign up to get the headlines by e-mail).
  • The ideas database by Creativity Pool, where ideas are submitted and discussed by innovators and inventors of all stripes.

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