You could also call these selected items nonpareils or classical
exemplars. Naturally some are rare if not priceless; but they range all
the way down to a few bucks so feel free to get out your wish list. Here
it’s more a combination of significance and romance than monetary
value. And unlike the Holy Grail[s] of song and fame their existence is,
or at the very least was, undisputed.
By single categories:
Flora & Fauna
Treasure & Splendor
Jamón ibérico de bellota
Might this be the ham that never saw a church potluck?
|May I help you?|
In the southern and southwestern parts of Spain you’ll find the
black Iberian pig or pata negra. It’s relatively small and
slow-maturing (for a pig, anyway), characterized by its ebony hooves and
an enviable talent for growing tasty ribbons of fat between its muscle
fibers. The breed goes back a thousand years and appears to have
descended from a hybridization between domestic pigs the Phoenicians
introduced during the Bronze Age and wild boars.
Anything sold as
must come from a free range
pig of at least 75% pata negra gene stock. Ideally these sweethearts are
raised on barley and maize for their first couple of months and
thereafter left to roam freely and forage for acorns. They can be
fattened later on with grain, but compromising their
montañera diet like that will dilute the unique flavor and
texture that the region’s acorns — holm, gall and cork oak,
mainly — impart to their meat.
They stack the hams under layers of salt for 14 days to dehydrate them
and then dry-cure them for 12 to 48 months in sheds high up in the
mountains. However sinful its flavor may be, the meat’s fat
portion is largely monounsaturated like olive oil. This means you can
enjoy it with a clear conscience, both in terms of being kind to your
arteries and of encouraging humane animal husbandry.
All that tranquil puttering about in oak groves and curing sheds
isn’t terribly cost-effective, of course, so the end product will
set you back. North Americans seeking USDA-approved jamón
ibérico from specialty food importers like
will need to fork over $90 or so per pound (typically $900 for a whole ham)
depending on the donor pig’s acorn history, though the 2009 Christmas
season left Spain with a rare glut of ibérico along with lesser
jamones that they were forced to unload at deep discounts and even in
some cases give out free as promotions.
Libyan desert glass
In 1932 geologist Patrick Clayton, the same individual played more recently by
Julian Wadham in the film The English Patient, discovered deposits of a
chartreuse-colored glass in a remote area of the Libyan desert and managed to
lug back 50 kilograms of it.
|Libyan desert glass
(Tutankhamen c. 1323 bce)
|Photo: Jon Bodsworth
Normally it’s safe to assume that this sort of material is a form of
obsidian, a volcanic glass used since ancient times for various ornamental
purposes and to make super-sharp knives. Indeed there is some volcanism
in that area.
But Libyan desert glass is very different. While obsidian averages between 50%
and 70% in silica content, here we’re seeing about 98% which is equivalent to that of
modern glass. Also, we now know through cosmic ray track analysis that LDG is
about 28 million years old versus nine thousand or so for the nearby volcanoes.
If you rule out pre-human atomic warfare that pretty much leaves the heat of a
meteor impact as the culprit. Glassy fragments formed that way are called
tektites and you’ll find lots of them elsewhere in the world
— that New Age favorite Moldavite being an example. But LDG stands
alone in its chemistry, clarity and color. Clayton didn’t know this, but local
cultures going back thousands of years had also prized it. Note the scarab to the left.
Demand for a semi-obscure novelty like LDG from collectors and gemstone hobbyists is
modest, so at the moment you can pick up high quality rough for what comes out
to around $2000 per pound. My own favorite fantasy (I think it’s
safe to assume no one has tried this yet) is to melt several pounds together,
blend well, and cast from that a set of drinking glasses.
In 2006 a Boston Universiy team announced that a heavily
eroded circular formation now known as Kebira Crater may well have been formed
by the meteorite responsible for LDG. It’s about 23 km (14 miles) in diameter,
centered about 292 km (182 miles) due north of where the Egyptian and Sudanese borders intersect. Fire up Google Earth or the like
and fly to 24° 40’ north,
24° 58’ east if you’d like to take a look.
Fazioli Model F308 Piano
Say you aspire to build the ultimate, take-no-prisoners concert grand piano in
terms of its tone quality. Hundreds of issues enter into this, but probably the
first you’ll need to address is how to make its strings as long
One reason for this is that in order to generate the richest waveform a string
needs to be struck very close to one end. The closer, the better. If A is the
distance between a string’s tuning peg-side anchorage and the contact point of
its hammer and B is the remaining distance from there to its other anchorage at
the far end of the instrument, you want to minimize the ratio A/B. Mechanical
limitations dictate that A can only be so short, so you’re left to do what you
can with B.
The other reason is that for a given pitch, a shorter string sounds “noisier” in
tone and less musical than a longer one. Technicians call this inharmonicity.
This is also why the singing voices of children, due to their smaller vocal
cords, typically sound sweeter and more bell-like than those of adults even if you
disregard the pitch differences. Cute for glockenspiels and Charlie Brown
specials but undesirable for concert grands.
Anyone who’s plucked rubber bands knows that the longer the strings, the
harder you need to stretch them to maintain a given pitch. But right away you come up against the tensile
strength of whatever you’re using, both in the piano’s strings and in that herculean
metal plate or harp that has to hold all of them. A collective tension exceeding
200,000 newtons (20 tons) is not unusual. But at the same time it doesn't pay to
over-design the harp too much because, well, pianos weigh enough at it is.
Currently the grandest of the grands is the Model F308 by Fazioli of Sacile,
Italy. As the number implies, it’s 308 centimeters long or a little over ten
feet. Specialized computer algorithms allow the company to finesse the bejesus
out of the geometries of the strings, harp, and other components to achieve that
length and coax the absolute maximum out of the total system.
But storm clouds loom: Klavins of Bonn, Germany, claims to be working on a Model
408. If it had to rely on the same strings as
the Fazioli, which I can’t imagine, it would need to torture them with around 75% more tension.
So... synthetic sapphire whiskers? Carbon nanotube composites? Stay tuned.
In 1995 Russian mathematician Vladimir Arnold set up two ground rules
and conjectured that with enough ingenuity someone could design an object
that would both satisfy them and always come to rest at the same
orientation when placed on a flat surface.
|Photo: Gábor Domokos|
The first rule was that its shape had to be entirely convex: a ruler
would only be able to lie against it at a single point or at most a
line segment — no valleys allowed. The second was that
its density had to be constant throughout so that, unlike those
self-righting clown toys, it couldn’t employ an offset weight of
After some false starts two Hungarian scientists, Gábor Domokos
and Péter Várkonyi, managed to machine a successful
gömböc in 2006. Since that time they’ve produced them in a
range of sizes and shapes and in several metal alloys as well as in
marble and Plexiglas. (Like those transparent dice in Las Vegas casinos,
the Plexiglas models prove to the world that they’re not cheating with
In order for the gömböc to do its thing its manufacturing tolerances
have to meet or surpass one part in 10,000. This means you need to treat
them gingerly since if they suffer the slightest chip or dent they run the
risk of getting stuck during their self-righting processes. They’re
precision novelties and their prices
What’s so miraculous, if not downright spooky, is that whichever way you set
a gömböc down it will always have enough kinetic energy to
rock and swirl around on its own until it finds that resting
point. The name gömböc (pronounced “gembets,” more or
less, with a hard G) comes from the Hungarian term for a roundish
dumpling. The plural is gömböcök.
There’s a far older geometric toy called a rattleback that exhibits similar
mind-of-its-own properties when spun.
Most of us nowadays associate the word murrhine with that intricately
multicolored glassware from the Venetian island of Murano.
|Photo: Giovanni Dall'Orto / CC
But the real murrhine was a mysterious semitransparent synthetic stone
that artisans fashioned into goblets and other tableware for the ultra-upscale
market. It started out as a liquid that they poured into a mold and either baked
or possibly left to harden exothermically on its own (like plaster of Paris or
Portland cement). But the formula got lost and forgotten sometime leading into
the Middle Ages and the finished articles were so rare and precious that we don’t
have any recognizable samples to analyze.
Pliny the Elder (23-79 ce) tells us in his Natural Histories “The chief merit of
[murrhine vessels] is the great variety of their colors, and the wreathed veins,
which, every here and there, present shades of purple and white, with a mixture
of the two; the purple gradually changing, as it were, to a fiery red, and the
milk-white assuming a ruddy hue. Some persons praise the edges of these vessels
more particularly, with a kind of reflection in the colours, like those beheld
in a rainbow.”
We also learn that although murrhine felt rather oily and emitted a
characteristic smell, its connoisseurs savored those qualities also. Roman statesmen
and other elites took enormous pride in their murrhines and dined and drank from
them especially when they wanted to put on the dog. Nero even smashed a couple to show
everyone who was boss. We know that crazed meteorite-worshiping, ostrich brain-eating
Heliogabalus was also an avid collector so this extends the treasure’s survival well
into the third century.
It’s quite possible someone will eventually dig up some shards of murrhine or glean
some more details from the literature (there’s an ample backlog of
carbonized first century scrolls waiting for restoration and decipherment, for
example) and then we’ll have a better idea how and from what it was made.
The Edwin M. Stanton Fancyback
Ah, yes, the days when money looked like money.
|Courtesy National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian Institution|
This one dollar U.S. Treasury note of 1890 isn’t the rarest paper currency of that genre
— others exist in far shorter supply, such as the 1891 thousand dollar General Meade
that changed hands for $2.5 million in April 2013 —
but it’s quite widely acknowledged as the most legendary and as the most elaborately yet elegantly designed.
Despite posing the ultimate 19th century counterfeiter’s nightmare, the
Fancyback’s layout doesn’t even seem cluttered. Note the
enormous dimensional diversity among the various elements on the front side
and the overall squint-your-eyes density contrasts on the back. As with
most paper currency the stock was 100% cloth pulp made, in those days, by
grinding up scraps of cotton and linen purchased by the wagon load from rag
There would have been a devoted team of master artisans attacking a project
like this. Some would specialize in portraits, others in the lettering or
organic ornamentation, and finally engineering types who would design, build,
and operate the geometric lathes. Through elaborate systems of cams and
gears, these latter Spirograph-like devices drove engraving tools to cut the
rosettes and other fishnet-like embellishments.
Millions of Fancybacks were minted and circulated (a blacksmith in 1890
would make about $11 weekly), but it’s estimated that only 900 to
1300 exist today. Values nudge past $3000 for specimens in the very finest
Note: A textual sockdolager like this should represent the ultimate challenge
for an optical character recognition (OCR) application. Any takers?
The silent Messiah Stradivarius
Those fortunate enough to own stringed instruments
from the Baroque-era Amati, Guarneri, and Stradivari workshops are
scrupulously fussy about who — if anyone — they allow to poke and prod them.
Although much of their vaunted superiority would seem to stem more from
cachet than reality (blind listening tests reveal them sonically
indistinguishable from many of their top-drawer peers), there
are many nuances in their physical makeup that do set them apart
and make them exquisitely responsive to their players.
|© Pruneau / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0|
Back in the 80s and 90s there was a lot of press about the more finely
packed growth rings in the spruce and maple available to those makers,
owing to the Maunder Mininum’s reduced growing seasons between 1645 and
1715. Other articles have cited the effect of microbes eating away tiny
resonance-encouraging voids in the wood as it soaked in the Venetian lagoons
awaiting the sawyers, and the presence of finely pulverized grains of
quartz, calcite, aluminum oxide (white sapphire), garnet, and/or
other minerals in the varnishes.
More recently we’ve seen physics professor William F. “Jack” Fry
demonstrate how intimately attuned these makers were to the way various
twisting and pumping actions of the instrument’s body contribute
to its sound. They modulated the thicknesses of the front plates in
meandering patterns, and applied their varnishes in similarly uneven
coats, both to optimize these quiverings and to compensate for the
flexibility quirks of the wood that differed for
About 500 Stradivarius violins survive, but among them the
Messiah-Salabue from 1715 is unique. It was found unsold in Antonio
Stradivari’s workshop after he died in 1737, and since at least the
early 19th century it has scarcely if ever been played.
You’ll notice from the photo that the C-shaped rims at its waist show no
wear from errant bows and that it has no chin rest or E string tuner.
The idea here has been to preserve one Stradivarius in as pristine a
condition as possible so that violin makers and other researchers will
always have a sample to analyze. It’s on display on the second floor of
the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.
Maize or corn as we know it doesn’t exist in the wild and never did. In fact,
if all the world’s corn farmers decided to desert their crops tomorrow and let
them fend for themselves, the species would eventually vanish because it can’t self-propagate.
|Teosinte (genus Zea)
|US Department of Agriculture
There are several wild grasses native to Mexico and Central America
collectively referred to as teosinte [tay-o-SEEN-tay]. Their finger-sized ears bear a
single row of tough-skinned kernels which you can either feed to livestock or
grind into flour. At a high enough temperature some will even pop
We’ve come to understand that sometime around 12,000 years ago the locals began to
cultivate teosinte and over several millennia of selective breeding developed hundreds
of varieties of maize — or what the first visiting Europeans called Indian corn to
distinguish it from the other cereal grains (“corn”) they were already
Teosinte is now rare and endangered. One species, Zea nicaraguensis,
exists confined to a single plot of around 6000 plants. The Mexican and
Nicaraguan governments keep all teosinte under protection, though it’s available
to qualified agronomists for analysis and experimentation.
Gaspard de la nuit:
Trois poèmes pour piano d'après Aloysius Bertrand
Back when I was in high school I somehow wound up on a local TV quiz
bowl with three of my classmates. One of the challenges put to us by the
emcee was to identify Ravel’s Baléro. Though I was very
faintly aware of Ravel I had never heard of that piece. It’s still hard
to say whether that was good or bad.
Maurice Ravel himself expressed much the same attitude toward
Baléro that Frank Zappa would echo fifty-odd
years later toward Valley Girl: basically,
total bewilderment that such a spur-of-the-moment trifle
drew so much adulation.
But you’ll never hear that kind of talk from either side of the table about
Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit. It was and continues to be one of the
most astonishing, multilayered pieces of music a single pair of hands
can conjure from a keyboard. Correspondingly it’s also quite likely the most
technically demanding in the standard repertoire.
YouTube video of its first movement played by Valentina Lisitsa
(whose parents originally intended for her to be a
You can interpret the title as Treasure guardian of the night.
The piece describes a water sprite in a tale by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué, a hanged
man illuminated by the setting sun, and a gnome menacing someone in a
dark room as they try to sleep.
In his book Mind Over Matters, Mystery Science Theater 3000
writer Michael J. Nelson shares his wry fantasies about being a
popular college professor who rides to work on a reclining bicycle and,
when the mood strikes him, inspires his protégés to ever greater
transcendental heights with his own highly personal interpretations
Flora & Fauna
Treasure & Splendor