Category Archives: General

Maps: Extraordinary Ordinary Things

If you are anything like me, you grew up driving a car with the glove compartment filled with paper maps. When the GPS (global positioning system) came along, I was not quick to adopt it because I felt that getting there was half the fun. However, I then realized that getting lost was no fun at all, so I installed a GPS, and have never looked back.

The map is one of civilization’s most ancient inventions. Ever since mankind ventured more than a few kilometers away from hearth and home, some means of directing people from where they were to where they wanted to go became essential. Maps are still very much part of our travel. Either on paper or electronically, we could hardly go anywhere without one.

The concept of a map also has important applications elsewhere, notably in mathematics and computer science. 

I therefore strongly believe that the map (or maps) very much deserves a place of honor on the list of what I like to call “Extraordinary Ordinary Things.”

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The Feather, an Extraordinary Ordinary Thing

Have you ever heard the expression “stuck a feather in his hat and called in macaroni”? If you grew up in the United States, you almost certainly have because it is part of a popular American nursery rhyme that goes “Yankee Doodle went to town, just to ride the poneys, stuck a feather in his hat and called it macaroni.” And just like most Americans, you have no idea what it means. I’m not going to explain it here because it is quite a story, but rest assured it will be explained later on.

The important thing at the moment is to recognize that a feather is more than one of the identifying characteristics of birds. In fact, the story of the feather (or feathers) in certain ways parallels the history and development of mankind. This is why the word is found in so many idioms and commentaries on the human condition.

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Thimble—Extraordinary Ordinary Things

My wife loves thimbles. Not that she sews all that much; in fact, she hardly sews at all. Rather, she finds a thimble to be the ideal souvenir to remember each place we visit. In fact, the wall of our dining room is devoted almost exclusively to a display of souvenir thimbles.

I also love thimbles. Or at least one thimble, the thimble piece in the Monopoly board game. I don’t know why but when I was a kid, I always chose the thimble as my preferred playing piece. I haven’t played in decades, but every time I hear the word thimble, my childhood comes rushing back to me.

To the general mind, the thimble probably has nothing historic or fascinating about it; it is quite mundane. However, it has a history much more fascinating, and its uses are much more exotic than a non-aficionado could possibly imagine. This is why I believe the not-so-lowly thimble deserves a place on the list of what I like to call “extraordinary ordinary things.”

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The Doughnut—Extraordinary Ordinary Things

I once described the image of a typical young American child as holding a balloon in one hand and a melting ice cream cone in the other. Instead of a young child, the picture could also show (and probably more accurately) an adult holding a cup of coffee in one hand and a doughnut in the other.

Iconically American (like the French croissant), the doughnut today is known and appreciated around the world (also like the croissant). As with many iconic things, the doughnut is the subject of considerable controversy, not the least of which is: Should the correct spelling of the name be “doughnut” or “donut”?  More fundamentally, when is a doughnut truly a doughnut and when is it something else?

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