Your Friday Whole Lotta Beethoven Cello Mashup

The Spinach Armada

Here is quite possibly the headline of the week (at least): “Scientists Have Taught Spinach to Send Emails.” And while our first thought was that it’s more than we can get some people to do, surely the headline is some kind of hyperbole or metaphor? Nope—and don’t call me Shirley. From Euronews:

Through nanotechnology, engineers at MIT in the US have transformed spinach into sensors capable of detecting explosive materials. These plants are then able to wirelessly relay this information back to the scientists.

When the spinach roots detect the presence of nitroaromatics in groundwater, a compound often found in explosives like landmines, the carbon nanotubes within the plant leaves emit a signal. This signal is then read by an infrared camera, sending an email alert to the scientists.

Apparently, there is a whole new field called “plant nanobionics” which is basically about “the process of giving plants new abilities.” (This is not to be confused with “nanabionics, which is giving grandmothers new abilities.) Essentially, researchers are adding electronic components and systems to plants.

“Plants are very good analytical chemists,” explains Professor Michael Strano who led the research. “They have an extensive root network in the soil, are constantly sampling groundwater, and have a way to self-power the transport of that water up into the leaves.”

…While the purpose of this experiment was to detect explosives, Strano and other scientists believe it could be used to help warn researchers about pollution and other environmental conditions.

Because of the vast amount of data plants absorb from their surroundings, they are ideally situated to monitor ecological changes.

That’s nothing. These Around the Web features are actually put together by a bag of kale. Hey, it means we don’t have to pay it a celery.

Prime of Life

Novel Idea

Sometimes, imposing strict limitations can unleash creativity. To wit: via Boing Boing, we were intrigued by a 2014 novel called let me tell you written by Paul Griffiths. The limitation? The entire 144-page novel’s vocabulary was solely drawn from the 483 words spoken by Ophelia in Hamlet. Why Ophelia? Lithub interviews Griffiths.

I began with the idea of taking all the words spoken in Hamlet and rearranging them into a new text. However, it didn’t take me very long to realize that while initially I could say almost anything with this stock of words, unless I took huge care in monitoring what I was using, I could easily end up with a highly resistant residue of archaisms and prepositions.

I therefore decided to use not all the words in the play, once each, but all the words spoken by one character, with no restriction as to number of uses. Now, if you choose Hamlet as your character, his vocabulary is so vast there’s virtually no constraint—and I needed an active constraint to make the book work. If you choose Francisco, there’s the opposite problem, of being able to say only a very little. Ophelia has enough words to express herself on all sorts of matters, but also few enough that she is constantly bumping up against the unsayable.

It actually took him 13 years to write let me tell you (fortunately, the book is actually Ophelia’s autobiography; if it had been a contemporary story about a computer programmer, he probably would have been screwed).

writing under deliberate constraint can also be, paradoxically, a liberation. A highly artificial way of writing can unlock, as just now, something otherwise unavailable. To take an example from let me tell you, Ophelia lacks the word “mother”—not so strange in the play, where such a character doesn’t appear and is never referred to, but bound to be odd in an autobiography. Why would she never use that word? There would have to be a reason, and that reason would have to be expressed. Hence a whole chapter, on a mother-daughter relationship I could never have imagined without the constraint.

Might be worth checking out, maybe right before going for a swim.

Pro Tip

Looming Thoughts

Was it as good week for graphene news? It’s always a good week for graphene news! UK Startup Nanoloom has created BioHastalex, a new material made from graphene with an array of applications, including sustainable apparel. The complete story can be found on Page 40 of the latest issue of Twist.

(Not to be confused, Nanaloom creates artificial grandmothers out of graphene.)

Going to the Dogs

When the Chips Are Down

Foil-lined potato chip bags are notoriously unrecyclable, being essentially a polypropylene-laminated sheet of aluminum, with no way to separate the two materials. So into the landfill they go. Except in the case of one resourceful British inventor. Via Core 77:

Pen Huston…came up with an idea after thinking about the properties of each material. Polypropylene is waterproof, and aluminum foil reflects heat. Huston reasoned that potato chip bags--sorry, "crisp packets"--could be used to make covers for the sleeping bags that she observed local homeless folks sleeping in. As a volunteer for a local homeless charity, Huston had seen her share.

She then worked out a production method: Slice the bags open, wash them, then bond them together using an iron (while protecting the material with parchment paper).

A layer of clear plastic film, harvested from supermarket waste, is also ironed on/laminated as a liner.

She then set up the Crisp Packet Project, a volunteer community project that collects both potato chip bags and volunteers around the country to help remanufacture and then distribute them directly to the homeless.

Brushing Up on Recycling

Speaking of recycling, one of the most problematic objects to recycle is one that (hopefully) everyone has and goes through regularly: a toothbrush. The way the bristles are attached to the head makes them impossible to remove prior to recycling (which is good, or else they would come off at more inopportune times).

Colgate has entered this fray with a novel toothbrush concept we could all sink our teeth into: the Colgate Keep.  

The company has made it their mission to take steps towards addressing this global matter by reinventing the manual toothbrush with a reusable handle to contain 80% less plastic*. 

Colgate® Keep is designed with a snap-on replaceable brush head and a reusable aluminum handle to inspire people to make small steps that add up to significant impact. With availability online and at national retailers, Colgate® Keep is making less plastic more accessible for all looking for easy ways to reduce their plastic waste. 

* Compared to similarly sized Colgate® toothbrushes

Yeah, some plastic is still going into the bin, but at least there’s less of it, so it’s a start. The MSRP for a starter kit (1 handle and 2 heads) is $9.99, with a 2-head refill kit going for $4.99. Available online and at major retailers including Target and Amazon.

Home Movies

Goth Brooks

We recently came across Monstrum, a PBS series, hosted by Emily Zarka, Ph.D., that “takes us on a journey to discover a new monster for each new episode. Monstrum looks at humans’ unique drive to create and shape monster mythology through oral storytelling, literature and film.” We were intrigued by an episode all about gargoyles—grotesque figures that over the years, in films and other visual media, have taken on often terrifying lives of their own, which is strange given that they literally began as decorative waterspouts. (Imagine your gutters and downspouts taking on preternatural lives of their own.) The idea of using an animal or monster head as a means of draining water away from buildings dates back to ancient Egypt. But where did the word “gargoyle” and their more gothic incarnations come from? As Dr. Zarka explains, it comes from gargouille, a water dragon of French myth that would swallow ships and spit water out of its mouth. A priest beheaded the monster and mounted its head on the wall of the city. But it wouldn’t decay like the rest of the body…

Worth checking out.

No Expression

He Came, He Sawed, He Conquered

A somewhat dubious centenary was celebrated last month: the 100th anniversary of the old magic trick of sawing a woman in two. Says the NY Times:

On Jan. 17, 1921, the magician P.T. Selbit walked onstage at the Finsbury Park Empire in North London with Betty Barker, his assistant, whom he ushered into an upright wooden box.

Selbit — whose real name was Percy Tibbles — tied ropes around Barker’s wrists, ankles and neck, and pushed the ropes through holes in the box. Then he called members of the audience to the stage and asked them to pull the ropes tight, so Barker couldn’t move an inch.

“The Amazing Tibbles” probably would not have been a great stage name—sounds more like his cat. We continue:

He sealed the box and laid it flat with the help of assistants, then Selbit got down to business.

First, he pushed thick sheets of glass through slits, until they appeared to poke through her and out the other side. Then, as if that weren’t enough, he picked up a saw, and cut through the middle of the box, spraying sawdust everywhere.

Selbit’s show was, according to magic experts, the first time a performer ever sawed someone in half — a trick that has become an icon of magic, only rivaled by pulling a rabbit out of a hat. 

Was it a hit? You betcha.

Soon, Selbit was performing the illusion around Britain, using some marketing abracadabra to fuel interest. Before each show, stagehands would pour a bucket of fake blood outside the theater, as if a terrible accident had occurred.

It isn’t always a woman, we should point out. More recently, men have taken their turn in the box and, in one upsetting version of the trick, a baby. Why has this trick endured all these years?

“It’s just the simplicity of it,” said Mike Caveney, a magician who’s writing a history of the trick. “Magicians say a good trick is one that can be described in a few words, and ‘sawing a lady in half’ is very few words,” he added.

But the secrecy around how the trick is done obviously adds to its appeal, too. As much as everyone thinks they know how it works, “There might be 20 different methods in popular use,” Flom said.

Waxing and Waning

The Music of Bricks

Looking for a good Spotify or Apple Music playlist, especially one designed to be calming and soothing? Why not try Lego’s white noise playlist. Essentially, it is the natural sounds of Lego bricks. Says The Verge:

The playlist has seven different tracks, each about 30 minutes long. Some sound like you’re sitting next to somebody shuffling through a pile of bricks while working on a build. I’m a big fan of “Searching for the One (Brick)” because it captures the feeling of digging through a pile of bricks and finally finding that one piece you were looking for.

What, no Lego brick version of Jethro Tull’s “Thick as a Brick”?

Other tracks use Lego bricks to make some really cool soundscapes. One, “Wild as the Wind,” uses Lego bricks to convincingly emulate the sound of trees rustling in the breeze. Another, “The Waterfall,” sounds as if you were pouring out a gigantic box of bricks for 30 minutes straight. And one track, “It All Clicks,” features bricks being snapped together, creating a popcorn rhythm of satisfying clicks in your ears.

Seat of Power

Now here’s a lede for you. From Forbes: “Nicholas Conn’s obsession with toilet seats began in 2014…” Thus grabbed, we continue, “…when he was an engineering PhD student at the Rochester Institute of Technology applying for funding to develop in-home medical monitoring devices. ‘The biggest challenge was folks not taking their measurements, not using devices, not wanting to make these massive behavioral changes that are required,’ Conn recalls. He kicked around ideas with his advisor, ranging from a car steering wheel to a computer mouse. Then it hit him: ‘Let's throw electrodes on a toilet seat.’”

Seven years later, Conn, 32, has teamed up with Forbes Under 30 alum Austin McChord, 35, to raise $14 million in Series A funding for his company, Casana, to bring this smart-throne to America’s seniors. While it may sound crazy, a toilet seat solves a key problem many doctors face with patients—getting them to comply with recording home measurements. Remembering to write down weight or blood pressure or oxygen levels on a daily basis at home is hard. With a toilet seat, there are no wires, no charging stations, and no forgetting. 

The Heat Is Not On

Rude Awakening

We wonder how many (fictional) movies are currently in development having this exact same premise. From CNN:

On March 1, 2020, when the 19-year-old [Joseph Flavill] was struck by a car in Staffordshire, central England, the United Kingdom had recorded just 23 cases of a concerning new virus. The vast majority of Covid-19 infections were still confined to China, and the United States had confirmed just one death. 

Sporting events, bars and restaurants teemed with life. And in Flavill's home country that day, newspaper front pages were leading not with the spreading disease, but on Prime Minister Boris Johnson's announcement that he and his fiancée were expecting a child.

…Now, the teenager has begun to emerge from a 10-month coma -- elating his family but confronting them with a new question: How do you explain a year like no other?

We would recommend links to last year’s Around the Webs, but that could be just us.

Flavill did have one somewhat lucky break: he caught Covid-19 while unconscious and now will wake up eligible for the vaccine.

Who’s Zooming Who


From the “Good God, Why” file, we bring you this from Laughing Squid:

Auto enthusiast WhistinDiesel took a bright candy apple red Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat and equiped the $54,000 sports car with aluminum wheels that look like they were from a traditional old-time buggy. The spoked wheels were supercharged with the power of 700 horses behind it, making the car appear to be hovering at times, particularly the driver was on the open road and when he was doing burnouts.

Romance is Dead

Stuck in Amber

What was supposed only to have been a joke during an isolated test instead was mistakenly broadcast to all of Texas. From the BBC: “Officials from the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) have apologised after sending out an emergency message featuring the horror character Chucky. An Amber Alert message, used to warn of missing children, was sent out featuring the Child's Play villain along with his fictional child, Glen.”

What we take issue with is the understatement of Chucky’s age. The alert says he is 28, but the original Child’s Playcame out in 1988, which would make the titular terror toy 33, a bit old to still be going by “Chucky,” wethinks.

X-Ray Music

Let’s Be Frank

Via Laughing Squid: “Food stylist Erik Vernieuwe and photographer Kris De Smedt of Burp have created a ‘wienerrific’ photo series that recreates familiar and/or iconic scenes from various forms of pop culture and fine art with hot dogs in different states of dress.” You’ll relish these images, although not all of them cut the mustard:

So get your buns over to Instagram.

This Week in Printing, Publishing, and Media History

February 1

1462: German lexicographer, historian, and cryptographer Johannes Trithemius born. His famous treatise In Praise of Scribes implored monks to not abandon manuscript copying. However, his need to distribute a large number of these treatises quickly resulted in his having to have it printed on a printing press, a great moment of historical irony.

1851: English novelist and playwright Mary Shelley dies (b. 1797).

1884: The first volume (A to Ant) of the Oxford English Dictionary is published.

1896: La bohème premieres in Turin at the Teatro Regio (Turin), conducted by the young Arturo Toscanini.

1902: American poet, social activist, novelist, and playwright Langston Hughes born.

1904: American humorist and screenwriter S.J. Perelman born.

1938: American drummer and singer (Mothers of Invention) Jimmy Carl Black born. He was the Indian of the group.

1942: Voice of America, the official external radio and television service of the United States government, begins broadcasting with programs aimed at areas controlled by the Axis powers.

1942: Welsh actor, director, screenwriter, and Python Terry Jones born.

1964: The Beatles have their first number one hit in the United States with “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”

1996: The Communications Decency Act is passed by the U.S. Congress.

February 2

506: Alaric II, eighth king of the Visigoths promulgates the Breviary of Alaric (Breviarium Alaricianum or Lex Romana Visigothorum), a collection of “Roman law.”

1468: Johannes Gutenberg dies (b. 1398).

1882: Irish novelist, short story writer, and poet James Joyce born.

1887: In Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania the first Groundhog Day is observed. Again and again and again...

1922: Ulysses by James Joyce is published. Yes.

February 3

1690: The colony of Massachusetts issues the first paper money in the Americas.

1811: American journalist and politician Horace Greeley born.

1907: American author and philanthropist James A. Michener born, in rather epic fashion.

1947: American novelist, essayist, and poet Paul Auster born.

1947: English singer-songwriter and guitarist Dave Davies born.

1959: The day the music died: Rock and roll musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson are killed in a plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa.

February 4

1859: The Codex Sinaiticus is discovered in Egypt.

1960: American composer and playwright (Rent) Jonathan Larson born.

2004: Facebook, a mainstream online social networking site, is founded by Mark Zuckerberg, one of the signs of the impending Apocalypse.

2020: The COVID-19 pandemic causes all casinos in Macau to be closed down for 15 days.

February 5

1909: Belgian chemist Leo Baekeland announces the creation of Bakelite, the world's first synthetic plastic.

1919: Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and D. W. Griffith launch United Artists.

1924: The Royal Greenwich Observatory begins broadcasting the hourly time signals known as the Greenwich Time Signal.

1926: American publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger born.

1940: Swiss painter, sculptor, and set designer (Alien) H. R. Giger born.

February 6

AD 60: The earliest date for which the day of the week is known. A graffito in Pompeii identifies this day as a dies Solis(Sunday). In modern reckoning, this date would have been a Wednesday.

1515: Italian publisher, founded the Aldine Press Aldus Manutius dies (b. 1449).

1756: American colonel and politician, 3rd Vice President of the United States Aaron Burr born. Wait for it.

1945: Jamaican singer-songwriter and guitarist Bob Marley born.

February 7

1497: In Florence, Italy, supporters of Girolamo Savonarola burn cosmetics, art, and books, in a “Bonfire of the vanities.”

1812: English novelist and critic Charles Dickens born.

1885: American novelist, short-story writer, playwright, and Nobel Prize laureate Sinclair Lewis born.

1898: Émile Zola is brought to trial for libel for publishing J'Accuse…!.

1997: NeXT merges with Apple Computer, starting the path to Mac OS X.

Anything catch your eye “around the Web”? Share it with us at [email protected].