AI-Yi-Yi, Part the Infinity: Check, Mate

Are you publishing content online? Do you worry that it may be AI-generated? (Actually there are probably many of you out there who wish that Around the Web was AI-generated.) And if it is, does it leave you open to accusations of plagiarism? Now, as a good indication of how ridiculous the AI situation is going to become, we now have Originality.AI (no, it’s not an Adobe Illustrator file), a “Plagiarism Checker and AI Detector.”

Your needs, as a serious web publisher, for a plagiarism checking and AI detection tool are unique. Yet, all the existing plagiarism checking tools are built with Academia in mind.

Originality.AI is built by a team of content marketing and GPT-3 AI experts that deeply understands your needs and includes features like Team Management (no more sharing your login), Full Site Scan (coming soon), Auto-Billing, Scan History by User and most importantly an AI Writing Detection tool.

Buy one credit for 1¢—one credit scans 100 words. (If they launched a version that scans images, since one picture = 1,000 words, you’d need 10 credits, or 10¢, to scan an image, See? Don’t you wish this were AI-written?)

And we’ve already started to see lawsuits surrounding AI plagiarism, in this case surrounding images.

New Roman Times

“You can’t fight in here, it’s the War Room!”

Yes, the State Department is verging on parody with its “font war.” The Department is changing the typeface for high-level internal documents from Times New Roman to Calibri. Secretary of State Antony Blinken even used as the subject line of his email “The Times (New Roman) are a-Changin’.”

Why? Says Gizmodo:

The change comes as a means to help employees who are visually impaired and was recommended by the secretary’s office of diversity and inclusion.

OK, sounds reasonabl— Well, apparently not.

the announcement has received criticism and complaints that the Calibri font is not aesthetically pleasing. One Foreign Service officer told The Post that a water cooler discussion about the font change “took up, like, half the day,” and ranged on both ends of the approval spectrum, while another said, “I’m anticipating an internal revolt.”

This has happened before: in 2004, the State Department mandated a switch to Times New Roman from Courier New 12.

Ultimately, it’s a war on serifs:

In the email obtained by The Post, Blinken said the “decorative, angular features” of Times New Roman and other serifs “can introduce accessibility issues for individuals with disabilities who use Optical Character Recognition Technology or screen readers.” He added, “It can also cause visual recognition for individuals with learning disabilities.”

With all the honest-to-God stuff to worry about at the State Department, we’re not sure that expending emotional energy on this kind of knucklehead stuff is warranted. Or maybe it’s a relief to focus on something so trivial. And, hey, look on the bright side: it could have been Comic Sans.

A Daunting Comeback

It’s a seemingly unlikely comeback. The Honest Broker takes a look at how Barnes & Noble—a 136-year-old bookstore—turned itself around and is now on a very strong growth curve at a time when many digital platforms are starting to struggle. While not too long ago it was closing locations, it’s now profitable again and even announced plans to open 30 new stores. Amusingly, they are opening in locations where Amazon unsuccessfully tried to operate a bricks-and-mortar bookstore. What’s the secret? Well, part of it is hiring a boss who actually likes books.

In the case of Barnes & Noble, the new boss was named James Daunt. And he had already turned around Waterstones, a struggling book retailing chain in Britain. 

Back when he was 26, Daunt had started out running a single bookstore in London—and it was a beautiful store. He had to borrow the money to do it, but he wanted a store that was a showplace for books. And he succeeded despite breaking all the rules. 

For a start, he refused to discount his books, despite intense price competition in the market. If you asked him why, he had a simple answer: “I don’t think books are overpriced.”

Not long ago, Barnes & Noble had embarked on some questionable ventures. The entry into ebooks was kind of understandable, even if its Nook platform couldn’t compete against the Kindle. And individual stores were mandated to sell Nooks and send customers to to buy ebooks—hmm, we wonder why individual location sales went south. Then there were the cafés, and then the bewildering idea of a freestanding restaurant called Barnes & Noble Kitchen—no books, just food. And then—we say this having long patronized Barnes & Nobles in various locations around the country—it had become a not very good bookstore.

Happily, all that has changed, and even the branch near the Around the Web Cultural Accretion Bunker has vastly improved. But how?

After taking over Waterstones, he did something similar. He stopped all the “buy-two-books-and-get-one-free” promotions. He had a simple explanation for this too: When you give something away for free, it devalues it.  

But the most amazing thing Daunt did at Waterstones was this: He refused to take any promotional money from publishers

This seemed stark raving mad. But Daunt had a reason. Publishers give you promotional money in exchange for purchase commitments and prominent placement—but once you take the cash, you’ve made your deal with the devil. You now must put stacks of the promoted books in the most visible parts of the store, and sell them like they’re the holy script of some new cure-all creed. 

Those promoted books are the first things you see when you walk by the window. They welcome you when you step inside the front door. They wink at you again next to the checkout counter. 

Leaked emails show ridiculous deals. Publishers give discounts and thousands of dollars in marketing support, but the store must buy a boatload of copies—even if the book sucks and demand is weak—and push them as aggressively as possible. 

So Daunt did away with that idea.

Daunt refused to play this game. He wanted to put the best books in the window. He wanted to display the most exciting books by the front door. Even more amazing, he let the people working in the stores make these decisions

This is James Daunt’s super power: He loves books. 

“Staff are now in control of their own shops,” he explained. “Hopefully they’re enjoying their work more. They’re creating something very different in each store.” 

At Waterstone’s, after Daunt took over, returns to publishers dropped virtually to zero—unheard of in book publishing.  

His tenure at B&N started at an inauspicious time: COVID. But he used that to his advantage.

But Daunt used the pandemic as an opportunity to “weed out the rubbish” in the stores. He asked employees in the outlets to take every book off the shelf, and re-evaluate whether it should stay. Every section of the store needed to be refreshed and made appealing. 

Did it work?

Sales in 2021 quickly got back to pre-pandemic levels, and then kept growing. Readers regained trust in the company. The workers at the stores were more motivated and started genuinely acting like booksellers.

…The turnaround has delivered remarkable results. Barnes & Noble opened 16 new bookstores in 2022, and now will double that pace of openings in 2023. In a year of collapsing digital platforms, this 136-year-old purveyor of print media is enjoying boom times.

The moral of the story is, if you want to sell something—books, music, etc.—or even succeed any anything, you really have to have a passion for it, and not just see it as a commodity to be marketed in gimmicky ways.  

It really is a heartwarming story, especially if you love books and bookstores.

Breaking Book

As well as bookstores, we also love libraries, but we might pass on this one:

For the second time in a month, a Colorado library has closed its doors to clean up methamphetamine contamination.

Officials in the Denver suburb of Englewood shut down the city library last week within a couple of hours of getting test results Wednesday showing that the contamination in the facility’s restrooms exceeded state thresholds, city spokesman Chris Harguth said. 

Other spaces such as countertops also tested positive for lower levels of the drug and will require specialized cleaning, he said. The larger-scale remediation work will include removing tainted surfaces, walls, ductwork and exhaust fan equipment.

They should never have hired Walter White as head librarian.

Zillow Talk

One of the big debates spurred by the pandemic was, what is work going to look like? Will work from home be the norm, will companies force workers to come back—or will workers want to come back? According to the CEO of Zillow, “Traditional offices are as outdated as typewriters. Employers need to adapt.” As he writes in USA Today:

The office of 2019, a mere four years ago, is equally anachronistic today – whether that’s a row of cubicles under fluorescent lights or Silicon Valley’s playground-style version featuring bean-bag chairs and video game rooms to entice workers to stay into the wee hours of the night.  

And don’t forget the Volkswagen motorized office chair or the cubicle walls that chase you around. We continue.

These are already artifacts of ancient history, fossilizing even as many workers are still surrounded by them.

…In a Harris Poll survey in October, 73% of remote and hybrid employees said they’d probably find another job if their company forced them to work from the office full time. 

And since my company, Zillow, adopted what we call “Cloud HQ” early in the pandemic, we’ve had record numbers of job applicants, including almost 200,000 women and more than 180,000 Black, Indigenous and people of color candidates – up 60% and 46% compared with the previous period. 

The reason for this outpouring of interest is obvious. We’re building what we believe is a more connected, more equitable, more efficient, more inclusive and more flexible way of working. It’s living where you want, and wrapping your work around your life instead of vice versa. 

This obviously won’t work for everyone—think print production employees who may not want to install a press in their garage, but then aren’t press manufacturers now putting all sorts of press monitoring features in the cloud?

Graphene Asks, Where’s the Fire?”

Was it a good week for graphene news? It’s always a good week for graphene news! Graphene-enhanced gear can help protect firefighters. From (who else?) Graphene-Info:

Researchers from China’s Xi’an Polytechnic University, Tsinghua University, Chinese Academy of Sciences CAS) and Shaanxi Textile Research Institute have found that breathable electrodes woven into fabric used in fire suits have proven to be stable at temperatures over 520ºC. At these temperatures, the fabric is found to be essentially non-combustible with high rates of thermal protection time at the maximum values recorded so far for such technology at 18.91 seconds.

Janus graphene/poly(p-phenylene benzobisoxazole), or PBO, woven fabric is attempting to make firefighting “smarter”—not just in terms of flame-retardance but also the intelligence to warn the firefighter of increased risks while fighting fires.

While not the first of its kind, the introduction of PBO fibers offers better strength and fire protection than other similar fibers, such as Kevlar. The PBO fibers are first woven into a fabric that is then irradiated using a CO2 infrared laser. From here, the fabric becomes the Janus graphene/PBO hybrid that is the focus of the study.   

Then there is the PBO-based mask.

“The mask has a good smoke particle filtration effect, and the filtration efficiency of PM2.5 and PM3.0 reaches 95% and 100%, respectively. Meanwhile, the mask has good wearing comfort as its respiratory resistance (46.8 Pa) is lower than 49 Pa of commercial masks. Besides, the mask is sensitive to the speed and intensity of human breathing, which can dynamically monitor the health of the firemen” said Fan.

They also might be good for COVID protection.

Flame-retardant electronics featured in these fire suits are flexible, heat resistant, quick to make and low-cost which makes scaling for industrial production a tangible achievement. This makes it more likely that the future of firefighting suits and masks will be able to effectively use this technology. Quick, effective responses can also reduce economic losses attributed to fires.

Burnin’ for You

From one kind of burns to another—Robert Burns, the national poet of Scotland. Next Wednesday, January 25, is “Burns Night,” the celebration of his birthday (January 25, 1759). Mental Floss helpfully has “9 Facts About Robert Burns and Burns Night,” so you can optimize your reveling. Some excerpts:

The BBC puts Burns’s total number of works at 716. The Scottish bard’s best-known composition is “Auld Lang Syne,” which has become the unofficial anthem of New Year’s Eve celebrations worldwide. Burns claimed that he merely “took it down from an old man,” but experts think that he added his own creative flair to the lyrics.

Toward the end of his life, he ditched poetry for tax collecting:

Towards the end of his life, Burns was no longer making enough money from writing, so he took a job as an exciseman. When his support for the revolutionaries in the French Revolution and American Revolutionary Warjeopardized his job, he joined the Royal Dumfries Volunteers, a military organization formed in case of invasion, to prove his national loyalty.

A proper Burns Night runs something like this:

Proceedings kick off with the saying of the Selkirk Grace, which, according to The Scotsman, is “a short prayer, originally said in the Lallans dialect of lowland Scotland, which gives thanks to God for the meal about to be eaten.” The haggis is then brought out to the accompaniment of bagpipes, and Burns’s “Address to a Haggis” is recited. Once the haggis, neeps (mashed turnip), and tatties (mashed potato) have been eaten, the Immortal Memory is given, along with readings of his works. The event then finishes with everyone singing “Auld Lang Syne.”

If you’re wont to celebrate, Slàinte Mhath! 

Lost in Translation

We’ve mentioned in this space some stories about signage in Wales that exhibited Welsh translation failures, including the infamous example where the signmaker emailed the text to be translated and, accepting the response sight-unseen, included a Welsh “translation” that reads: “I am not in the office at the moment. Send any work to be translated.”

Now, from Alaska, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) did the Welsh one better (if “better” the word to use) by attempting to translate aid instructions into various indigenous languages for Alaska Natives. Says Vice:

After extreme weather caused by Typhoon Merbok pounded Alaska’s west coast in September, Alaska Native residents sought government aid to help deal with the destruction—only to receive absurd instructions from FEMA that were supposed to be written in two Indigenous languages, a Yup’ik dialect and Iñupiaq, but were instead incoherent.

“Your husband is a polar bear, skinny,” stated one passage in Federal Emergency Management Agency paperwork that was supposed to help residents file for aid, the Associated Press reported.

“Tomorrow he will go hunting very early, and will (bring) nothing,” another fragment said. According to AP, the sentence inexplicably had the word “Alaska” in the middle. 

FEMA had contracted with a California-based company, Accent on Language, to do the translating, and while, says AP, the exact process that caused the errors is a mystery (we wonder if AI was involved) “whoever was in charge of producing the translations likely pulled random phrases from online sources and produced nonsensical materials.”

Central Alaskan Yup’ik is the most commonly spoken Indigenous language in Alaska, with about 10,000 speakers, according to the Alaska Native Language Center. In fact, some children still learn it as a first language in 17 Yup’ik villages. The state is also home to about 13,500 Inupia, and about 3,000 of them, mostly older than 40, speak their language. Those most affected by poor translations are elders, many of whom are more comfortable speaking in their Indigenous languages than in English.  

Of course, a good question is why didn’t FEMA turn to the Yup’ik (and other indigenous peoples) themselves, rather than a California company?

Holton said, “It’s just bizarre. Why not approach the community and say, ‘Can you do this?’ There are plenty of people who could have done this in Alaska, but that’s not what they chose to do.” 

It’s Hard to Make Predictions, Especially about the Future

Credit Where It’s Due

One of the ostensible attempts to mitigate climate change has been the notion of a “carbon credit,” or (says Collins English Dictionary), “a certificate showing that a government or company has paid to have a certain amount of carbon dioxide removed from the environment,” thus giving the holder the ability to emit its own carbon dioxide in an equivalent amount. The problem is, carbon credits have never seemed, well, credible. But now a startup called Climeworks aims to change that. Says Semafor Climate:

It said today that it now uses a third-party verification process to certify its service of sucking carbon dioxide from the air and storing it underground. It’s the first time a company has achieved that on a meaningful scale using an outside auditor, The Wall Street Journal reported.

It’s an important milestone as carbon markets become more popular even as skepticism grows about the quality of credits. The new Climeworks process helps assure its clients, like Microsoft, Shopify and Stripe, that the credits they are buying to offset their own emissions actually help the environment.

The concept of carbon credits opens itself to all sorts of greenwashing abuse.

That leaves plenty of room to still be skeptical about carbon markets. But the efforts of Climeworks to obtain outside verification could help validate the hype.

Livin’ in the Fridge

You know how it is: you open the refrigerator, pull out a container with leftovers, and wonder who was President when you put it in the fridge, or you recall that the restaurant you ordered it from went out of business five years ago. Wouldn’t it be great if you could tell how old something in the fridge was without having to open it and accost your nostrils and risk anosmia?

Well via Core 77, now you can, with Joybos Seal Timer Food Container, which has a built in dial that lets you set the month and date it was stored.

Alas, it’s not dishwasher- or and microwave-safe. Bummer. Core 77 helpfully suggests a fridge-mounted magnetic tape dispenser for labeling foods.

Addicted to Spuds

Valentine’s Day is on the horizon, so why not make this year one to remember by sending your beloved a “potato bouquet” from Idaho florist Historia Florals. Says Boing Boing:

Shania of Historia Florals, thought it would be fun to make a bouquet of potatoes and put it up as a “joke” on TikTok. She then made that video into a Reel for her Instagram business feed, captioning it “the perfect housewarming gift for your new California neighbors” and that’s where it blew up.

Figuratively, we hope.

Historia Florals

Quite interestingly, at one time in Europe the potato was considered an aphrodisiac.

Did anything catch your eye “around the Web” this week? Let us know at [email protected].

This Week in Printing, Publishing, and Media History

January 16

27 BC: Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus is granted the title Augustus by the Roman Senate, marking the beginning of the Roman Empire.

1492: The first grammar of the Spanish language (Gramática de la lengua castellana) is presented to Queen Isabella I.

1605: The first edition of El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha (Book One of Don Quixote) by Miguel de Cervantes is published in Madrid, Spain.

January 17

1706: Benjamin Franklin born.

1867: German-born American film producer and co-founder of Universal Studios Carl Laemmle born.

1904: Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard receives its premiere performance at the Moscow Art Theatre.

1929: Popeye the Sailor Man, a cartoon character created by E. C. Segar, first appears in the Thimble Theatre comic strip.

January 18

1873: English author, poet, playwright, and politician, Secretary of State for the Colonies Edward Bulwer-Lytton dies (b. 1803).

1882: English author, poet, and playwright A. A. Milne born.

1936: English author and poet, Nobel Prize laureate Rudyard Kipling dies (b. 1865).

1993: Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is officially observed for the first time in all 50 states.

January 19

1729: English playwright and poet William Congreve dies (b. 1670).

1736: Scottish-English chemist and engineer James Watt born.

1764: The world’s first mail bomb severely injures the Danish Colonel Poulsen, residing at Børglum Abbey.

1809: American short story writer, poet, and critic Edgar Allan Poe born.

1829: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust: The First Part of the Tragedy receives its premiere performance.

1853: Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Il trovatore receives its premiere performance in Rome.

1883: The first electric lighting system employing overhead wires, built by Thomas Edison, begins service at Roselle, N.J.

1915: Georges Claude patents the neon discharge tube for use in advertising.

1940: You Nazty Spy!, the very first Hollywood film of any kind to satirize Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, premieres, starring The Three Stooges, with Moe Howard as the character “Moe Hailstone” satirizing Hitler.

1953: Almost 72% of all television sets in the United States are tuned into I Love Lucy to watch Lucy give birth.

1983: The Apple Lisa, the first commercial personal computer from Apple Inc. to have a graphical user interface and a computer mouse, is announced.

1986: The first IBM PC computer virus is released into the wild. A boot sector virus dubbed (c)Brain, it was created by the Farooq Alvi Brothers in Lahore, Pakistan, reportedly to deter unauthorized copying of the software they had written.

2038:  The 32-bit Unix time will overflow at 03:14:07 UTC.

January 20

1894: American cartoonist and creator of Little Orphan Annie Harold Gray born.

1920: Italian director and screenwriter Federico Fellini born.

1920: Dammit, Jim, American actor DeForest Kelley born.

1929: In Old Arizona, the first full-length talking motion picture filmed outdoors, is released.

1937: Franklin D. Roosevelt is sworn in for his second term as U.S. President, the first Presidential Inauguration to take place on January 20 following the ratification of the 20th Amendment.

1954: In the United States, the National Negro Network is established with 40 charter member radio stations.

1986: In the United States, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is celebrated as a federal holiday for the first time.

January 21

1535: Following the Affair of the Placards—an incident in which anti-Catholic posters appeared in public places in Paris and in other major French cities, including one on the bedchamber door of King Francis I—French Protestants are burned at the stake in front of the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris. Don’t underestimate the power of display graphics!

1789: The first American novel, The Power of Sympathy or the Triumph of Nature Founded in Truth by William Hill Brown, is printed in Boston.

1924: English actor, singer, and screenwriter Benny Hill born.

1950: British novelist, essayist, and critic George Orwell dies (b. 1903).

1953: Co-founder of Microsoft Paul Allen born.

1971: The current Emley Moor transmitting station, the tallest free-standing structure in the United Kingdom, begins transmitting UHF broadcasts.

2020: Welsh actor, director, and screenwriter Terry Jones dies (b. 1942).

January 22

1573: English poet John Donne born.

1788: English poet and playwright Lord Byron ( George Gordon Byron) born.

1889: Columbia Phonograph is formed in Washington, D.C.

1898: Russian director and screenwriter Sergei Eisenstein born.

1927: Teddy Wakelam gives the first live radio commentary of a football match anywhere in the world, between Arsenal F.C. and Sheffield United at Highbury.

1947: KTLA, the first commercial television station west of the Mississippi River, begins operation in Hollywood.

1984: The Apple Macintosh, the first consumer computer to popularize the computer mouse and the graphical user interface, is introduced during a Super Bowl XVIII television commercial.

2018: American sci-fi and fantasy novelist Ursula K. Le Guin dies (b. 1929).