Your Friday Playing with Matches

Patched Up

UC San Diego has developed a wearable patch that can monitor blood pressure in blood vessels as much as an inch below the skin’s surface. Hopes are high that other on-patient uses can be discovered as well! 

No Soap, Radio


Was it a good week for graphene news? It’s always a good week for graphene news! Thanks to graphene makes fruit last longer:

Indian scientists have developed a graphene oxide composite paper, loaded with preservatives, that can be used as wrappers to help extend the shelf-life of fruits, stated the Department of Science and Technology.

In the currently used technology, preservatives are adsorbed by the fruit, causing chronic toxicity. In the team's new paper, the wrapper releases the preservative only when needed. The wrapper can also be reused, which is not possible with the present technology.

I, Robot

Signs of the Times: Calorie Counting

Staying fit while traveling (back when traveling was a thing) was always a challenge, but one way to at least make some effort was to take the stairs rather than elevators or escalators. Via Core77, one rail station in Chennai, India, added some motivational signage for would-be calorie burners.

Of course, it’s questionable as to how accurate these counts are, and of course everyone’s mileage will vary, but then how accurate are the calorie burning indicators on fitness equipment? It gives us a general sense of what we can burn, and it’s taking these little steps on a regular basis that can make a big difference in the long run.

Out on the Tiles

I, QR Code

McSweeney’s Internet Tendency is a humor site that often offers some of the finest and funniest essays and other items—think of a more literary version of The Onion. (The 2009 entry on Festive Gourd Season is perhaps one of the laugh-out-loud funniest items ever committed to pixels.)

Anyway, this week they ran a first-person essay written by a QR code. (No, it was not written by Heidi Tolliver-Walker.) 

Like many innovations, I was at first misunderstood. Some called me ugly. Advertising executives laughed in my face. The bullying hurt, but I had a dream: for billions of end-users to capture me with their optical device. But I could not compute how to achieve this goal.

…One night at a Cracker Barrel, I studied some end-users from my perch on a Bud Light placard. They touched virus-ridden menus, then their chins, their phone, their noses, back to the menu, their free cornbread, and the menu again, in a chain of disease vectorization. That’s it! I can be a menu, and much more! I worked my hospitality-industry contacts, appearing in dive bars and Michelin-starred restaurants.

…Now I am at museums, on tickets and underneath the art. You may have noticed me in the digital “vax pass.” Meanwhile, those advertising creatives are integrating me into a caffeinated seltzer campaign. I am not screaming schadenfreude, as I communicate at a subsonic level. But one must admit, the reversal of fortunes is delicious.

Drum Up Business

Corrugated Communities

As we all know, the packaging market is growing, and has been for a while. David Zwang has written extensively on the impact the growth of packaging has been having on our industry. E-commerce, especially post-pandemic, has been a big driver of packaging growth, and Fast Company had a story about an interesting side effect of that growth: a “packaging real estate boom.”

According to new research from the commercial real estate company Newmark, the rise of e-commerce is fueling another kind of boom in the factories and warehouses that produce and distribute packaging: Plastic bags, padded envelopes, and classic corrugated cardboard are in growing demand, and so are spaces where these items are produced.

… Corrugated cardboard is a big part of the boom, representing 80% of the packaging used for online orders. The report says that about 407 billion square feet of corrugated cardboard was produced in the U.S. last year—enough to completely cover the combined land area of New Jersey, Connecticut, and a bit of New York. That’s up from about 390 billion square feet the previous two years, and represents a high point in a decade-long upward trend in cardboard production. Newmark anticipates the growth will continue, with an estimated 3.5% annual increase over the next five years. More cardboard means more cardboard factories.

They estimate that every additional billion square feet of corrugated packaging produced will require an additional 250,000 square feet of industrial real estate space. This can be accomplished by expanding current facilities or new construction—and corrugated packaging producers are eager to locate these facilities fairly close to their primary customers, which are e-commerce warehouses.

According to Newmark’s research, some places are more likely to see this kind of growth. Places with good logistics infrastructure and nearby freight rail access will be highly sought out.

Cleansing the Pallet

Moveable Type

Anyone who has tried to learn English knows how difficult it can be, certainly compared with other European languages. English is plagued with arbitrary rules, bizarre spelling anomalies, pronunciation rules that have seemingly no rhyme or reason, and tons of other idiosyncrasies not found in more structured languages. Part of this is due to English absorbing words and even usage from other languages, as well as the fact that there is no “academy” overseeing and vetting how English is used. People talk about the “grammar police” but there is no “official” policing of grammar; all violations can only be citizens arrests. The only real rule in English is that “proper English” is only what English speakers are using at any given time. Which is why English is always mutating.

Aeon has an interesting look at the evolution of the English language, and points out how technology—specifically the printing press—was complicit in a lot of the wackiness of English. The timing of the introduction of the printing press had a lot to do with it.

The rise of printing caught English at a moment when the norms linking spoken and written language were up for grabs, and so could be hijacked by diverse forces and imperatives that didn’t coordinate with each other, or cohere, or even have any distinct goals at all. If the printing press had arrived earlier in the life of English, or later, after some of the upheaval had settled, things might have ended up differently.

Until the advent of the printing press, for most people English was not a written language. The only ones who were capable of writing English were scribes, and it’s notable that English was pretty standardized during the Monk Age.

For the first few hundred years of English using the Latin alphabet, its spelling was pretty consistent and phonetic. Monks and missionaries, beginning around 600 CE translated Latin religious texts into local languages – not necessarily so they could be read by the general population, but so they could at least read aloud to them. Most people were illiterate. The vernacular translations were written to be pronounced, and the spelling was intended to get as close to the pronunciation as possible.

After the Norman invasion of 1066, written English vanished and didn’t reappear again until the 14th century.

By then, English had changed. A few centuries of language evolution had led to different pronunciations. And Old English writing habits had been lost. As English started to make its written comeback, these people found themselves not only trying to figure out how to spell English words but also reaching for English ways to say educated, official things. 

So there was no standardized spelling. Enter William Caxton, who installed the first printing press in England in 1476. Printing English books or other materials was done without style guides, copy editing, or dictionaries. (Kind of like online publishing these days. Oh, but we kid…)

Some standards did spread and crystallise over time, as more books were printed and literacy rates climbed. The printing profession played a key role in these emergent norms. Printing houses developed habits for spelling frequent words, often based on what made setting type more efficient. In a manuscript, hadde might be replaced with hadthankefull with thankful. When it came to spelling, the primary objective wasn’t to faithfully represent the author’s spelling, nor to uphold some standard idea of ‘correct’ English – it was to produce texts that people could read and, more importantly, that they would buy. Habits and tricks became standards, as typesetters learned their trade by apprenticing to other typesetters. They then often moved around as journeymen workers, which entailed dispersing their own habits or picking up those of the printing houses they worked in.

Typesetters were largely responsible for the way English evolved.

Some spellings got entrenched this way, by being printed over and over again in widely distributed texts, very early on. The word ghost, which had been spelled and pronounced gast in Old English, took on the gh spelling under the influence of Flemish-trained compositors. It was such a commonly encountered word in English text, particularly in the phrase holy ghost and other translations of Latin spiritus, that it just began to look right.

Other spellings arose, and were then cemented through the power exerted by the visual shape of similar words. The existence of would and should, for example, brought about the spelling of couldWould and should were once pronounced with the ‘l’ sound, as they were the past-tense forms of will and shallCould, however, was never pronounced with an ‘l’; it was the past tense of canCould was coude or cuthe. Then the visual power of would and shouldattracted could to their side. At printing’s rise, the ‘l’ sound was already often absent from the pronunciation of would and should, so the ‘l’ was less a cue to pronunciation than to word type. Could is a modal verb, same as would and should. There was no explicit intention to make them look the same, but the frequency of their appearance nudged them toward ending up that way.

Technology has constantly influenced the evolution of English, perhaps most dramatically in the Internet age. One recent book we highly recommend is Because Internet by linguist Gretchen McCulloch. She even makes a compelling case for emoji as a legitimate extension of the language, but we still resist.

I Second that Emoji

Kiln It

Core77 raises an interesting issue: the user experience (UX) involved in cremation is not very good. Granted, we never thought of cremation as having a particular UX, at least from the, er, outside, but apparently dealing with the cremains of a loved one could be a better experience, at least logistically.

One entrepreneur, Justin Crowe had been thinking about this since his grandfather passed away in 2014. And when he started asking friends about what they did with ashes, he heard all kinds of horror stories. One talked about the travails of scattering them on a windy day. Another described sweeping up remains strewn with bone bits after they spilled….

Eww, right?

So Crowe launched a company called Parting Stone that turns human or pet cremains into smooth pebbles.

Their process first removes contaminants from the remains (implants, surgical screws or staples), adds water and "a small amount" of an unspecified binding material to transform the ash into a clay-like material, and heats the mixture in a kiln to produce the pebbles.

Parting Stone charges $695 for humans, $345 for dogs, and $295 for cats. Presumably other types of pets are charged on a per-species basis.

Fiction Is Stranger Than Truth

Kiln It 2: Italicize Carefully

We don’t expect that this is a sentence that most folks use all that often, but should you have a need to, be careful where you place the emphasis. Author C.S. Ratliff demonstrates how the sentence “I never said we should kill him” can take on different meanings depending on which word is emphasized.

You can get into some real trouble.

We are reminded of the Derek Bentley case, in which a badly phrased exhortation led to unfortunate consequences. Derek Bentley and Chris Craig were two would-be burglars who attempted to burgle a warehouse in Croydon, UK, in 1952. They were caught in the act by the police and, while the details are not entirely clear, what happened was that Craig was involved in an armed standoff with the police. Sgt. Frederick Fairfax shouted, “Hand over the gun, lad” and Craig’s cohort Bentley said “Let him have it, Chris.” Did he mean “Give him the gun” or “Shoot him”? Craig shot, and although he didn’t kill Fairfax, he did eventually kill another policeman, Sidney Miles. The subsequent trial hinged on the controversy over the intended meaning of this phrase (or whether Bentley had uttered it at all). They were both convicted and while Craig was too young for the death penalty, Bentley was hanged on January 28, 1953. The case was immortalized in the 1991 film Let Him Have It, and the 1989 Elvis Costello song “Let Him Dangle.”

All Work and No Play

Just Our Type

Here’s a fun little game that can get a little addictive. Called Type the Alphabet, it simply times how fast you can…type the alphabet. It’s tempting to want to keep topping your speed, but eventually you hit a wall.

Sitting on the Fence

A Laughing Epidemic Is No Laughing Matter

Some of us here in the Around the Web Cultural Accretion Bunker are big fans of The Unbelievable Truth, the BBC Radio 4 panel series that always turns up unusual, interesting, and occasionally true facts. This week’s episode mentioned the Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic, which we felt compelled to delve further into.

Now, normally, laughter is a good thing, but there are times when it is inappropriate—and, unfortunately, can’t be controlled. But these minor incidents pale next to what happened in Tanganyika in 1962, where an outbreak of uncontrollable laughter lasted several months. From Atlas Obscura:

The 1962 outbreak began in a girls’ school and then spread to other communities, with uncontrollable laughter affecting perhaps 1,000 people, lasting several months, and causing the temporary closure of 14 schools. 

…Sufferers’ symptoms included recurring attacks of laughing and crying that lasted from a few hours up to 16 days. These fits were accompanied by restlessness—aimless running, occasional violence—but there was no evidence of organic causes

This isn’t entirely unheard of. Laughter can often be a response to anxiety or distress—as many no doubt learned during the pandemic. Anyway, back to 1962 Tanganyika:

Most cases of mass psychogenic illness begin with a single individual—in this case, one schoolgirl likely fell into a fit of anxiety-induced laughter, setting in motion a chain effect, until the girls around her were also engulfed in desperate laughter. Slowly, it spread beyond their school and region and into other at-risk populations.

This kind of psychogenic illness really is nothing to laugh about, because it has nothing to do with humor and is often erroneously cited as evidence of how laughter is “contagious.”

Psychogenic illness has all kinds of so-called nerve symptoms, he explains, and laughter is just one of them. Though the Tanganyika case is closed, similar cases of mass psychogenic illness occur among groups of people unable to extract themselves from a stressful situation.

Signs of the Times: David-19

Traveling Violations

At The Big Picture, Barry Ritholtz talks about his first business trip in 18 months, but comments on how the pandemic—and now especially the Delta variant—is causing many to rethink travel.

During the lockdown, I have presented at numerous virtual conferences – my takeaway is that it is easy as hell. I am typically finished – shower, shave, dress, present – in less time than it normally takes me to get to the airport. Who wants to get back on the road after that?

That’s a fair question. But he also cites other metrics to perhaps gauge what is going on with travel.

Two headlines leaped out at me suggesting that others with a substantial economic interest in business travel are getting nervous. The first was a pre-Delta Variant concern on July 1: American Express was raising its already pricey Platinum card to $695 a year,2 but adding more perks. The second was the post-Delta news yesterday that “JPMorgan won’t be raising the fee on the $550-a-year Sapphire Reserve;” Chase is “offering new rewards for dining, hotel stays, car rentals and air travel purchased through its rewards portal.”

Competition between the two leaders in the space is part of it, but perhaps the bigger competition is the concerns raised above. Do I really need to go on this trip? Do I want to risk my health or that of loved ones, spending days of work, travel, hotel, poor eating, out of my routine and comfort zone, for a meeting that lasts an hour or two?

That is the challenge for those who work in the business travel sector. 

Delta Dawn

Goose Watch

Finally this week, we take a gander at one of the most compelling controversies of our time: the mystery surrounding the time that a goose collided with Fabio’s face while he was on a roller coaster. We know, this has been plaguing you for decades.

Via Mental Floss, the story goes that on March 30, 1999, Fabio (who was famous at the time for being a cover model for romance novels) was riding Apollo’s Chariot, Busch Gardens Williamsburg’s then-new roller coaster. At 210 feet tall, the new coaster apparently had a tendency to encroach on the flight patterns of native birds. So while in transit, a 10-pound goose appeared in the roller coaster’s path and smashed into Fabio’s face, drawing a fair amount of blood and killing the goose. So it goes.

Fabio’s ride was meant to publicize the opening of the roller coaster, so there was a fair amount of press on hand to snap pictures of a bloodied Fabio as he got off the ride. (He needed three stitches.) Since the roller coaster was going 73 miles per hour, wasn’t it lucky that the goose didn’t kill Fabio? The LA Times actually consulted  a physicist (purportedly with a straight face) to answer this question:

“Since the goose is mushy, it could squash and diffuse the impact … like a crush zone in a car,” he said. “However, if it had been a brick, Fabio would be the crush zone.”

Fortunately, few roller coasters encroach on the flight patterns of bricks. 

But! There’s more to this story! Some years later, Fabio disputed that official story, telling Studio 10 in 2018 that the goose actually collided with another rider’s camera, the shrapnel from which then struck Fabio’s nose. “The goose story was, he alleged, a way for Busch Gardens to avoid liability.” Being dead, the goose wouldn’t be likely to sue.

Apollo’s Chariot is open, if you dare. Goose…COVID…assess your own risk level.

Oy Como Va

This Week in Printing, Publishing, and Media History

August 9

1776: Italian physicist and chemist Amedeo Avogadro born. (We’ve got his number.)

1854: Henry David Thoreau publishes Walden.

1892: Thomas Edison receives a patent for a two-way telegraph.

1930: Betty Boop makes her cartoon debut in Dizzy Dishes.

1944: The United States Forest Service and the Wartime Advertising Council release posters featuring Smokey Bear for the first time.

1962: German-born Swiss poet, novelist, and painter, Nobel Prize laureate Hermann Hesse dies (b. 1877).

1967: English author and playwright Joe Orton dies (b. 1933).

August 10

1793: The Musée du Louvre is officially opened in Paris, France.

1846: The Smithsonian Institution is chartered by the United States Congress after James Smithson donates $500,000.

1889: American game designer and creator of Monopoly Charles Darrow born.

1948: Smile! Candid Camera makes its television debut after being on radio for a year as Candid Microphone.

August 11

1942: Actress Hedy Lamarr (not Hedley) and composer George Antheil receive a patent for a Frequency-hopping spread spectrum communication system that later became the basis for modern technologies in wireless telephones and Wi-Fi.

1946: American journalist and author Marilyn vos Savant born.

1950: Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak born.

August 12

1865: Joseph Lister, British surgeon and scientist, performs the first antiseptic surgery.

1887: Austrian physicist and Nobel Prize laureate Erwin Schrödinger born.

1949: Scottish-English singer-songwriter, guitarist, and producer Mark Knopfler born.

1960: Echo 1A, NASA’s first successful communications satellite, is launched.

1964: English spy, journalist, and author, creator of James Bond Ian Fleming dies (b. 1908).

1981: The IBM Personal Computer is released.

August 13

1756: English caricaturist and printmaker James Gillray born.

1888: Scottish engineer and inventor of the television, John Logie Baird, born.

1889: William Gray of Hartford, Connecticut is granted United States Patent Number 408,709 for “Coin-controlled apparatus for telephones.”

1899: Director Alfred Hitchcock born.

1946: English novelist, historian, and critic H. G. Wells dies (b. 1866).

August 14

1457: Publication of the Mainz Psalter, the first book to feature a printed date of publication and printed colophon.

1885: Japan’s first patent is issued to the inventor of a rust-proof paint.

1888: An audio recording of English composer Arthur Sullivan’s “The Lost Chord,” one of the first recordings of music ever made, is played during a press conference introducing Thomas Edison’s phonograph in London. (Now available on iTunes.)

1945: American actor, comedian, musician, producer, and screenwriter Steve Martin born.

1951: American publisher and politician, founded the Hearst Corporation William Randolph Hearst dies (b. 1863).

1950: Cartoonist Gary Larson (The Far Side) born.

1956: German poet, playwright, and director Bertolt Brecht dies (b. 1898).

1963: American director, playwright, and screenwriter Clifford Odets dies (b. 1906).

1965: American producer, director, and screenwriter Brannon Braga born.

1975: The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the longest-running release in film history, opens in London.

August 15

1843: Tivoli Gardens, one of the oldest still intact amusement parks in the world, opens in Copenhagen, Denmark.

1912: American chef and author Julia Child born.

1914: The Panama Canal opens to traffic with the transit of the cargo ship SS Ancon.

1915: A story in the New York World reveals that the Imperial German government had purchased excess phenol from Thomas Edison that could be used to make explosives for the war effort and diverted it to Bayer for aspirin production.

1939: The Wizard of Oz premieres at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Los Angeles, Calif.

1965: The Beatles play to nearly 60,000 fans at Shea Stadium in New York City, an event later regarded as the birth of stadium rock. This would lead to...

1969: The Woodstock Music & Art Fair opens in upstate New York.