“taH pagh taHbe”

Klingon. Elvish. Kryptonian. Do you speak any of these? Would you like to learn to? No, neither would we, but we’d still want to check out a new exhibition opening November 16 called  Quasi: Experimental Writing Systems  about invented and imaginary writing systems. (Well, technically all writing systems are invented; you don’t really find any naturally occurring writing systems, unless those supersmart ravens have been hiding stuff from us.) At any rate, says Print magazine:

“Unlike writing systems that have evolved organically over generations of collective usage, the projects showcased in the exhibition present new configurations of signs and symbols, meticulously crafted at distinct points in time, each born with intention and purpose.”


Quasi views the invention of writing systems as “a speculative process and an exercise of discovery to uncover new quasi-realities within our systems of communication,” Lascaris explains. “Playing with language and fostering linguistic diversity contributes to an ongoing dialog about imagination and re-worlding, and their potential as rebellious processes to disrupt existing power structures and reshape our collective narrative.”

The works in the exhibition are rooted in this intersection. Delivered as font design projects, art books, scrolls, drawings, sculptures and other artifacts, some works are intentionally designed to be functional writing systems, allowing potential usage by others, while some exist in a realm where functionality becomes entirely irrelevant: Calder Ruhl Hansen’s D16 Syllabics is an abugida (syllabary writing system where consonants have built-in vowels) drawing from Canadian Aboriginal syllabics; Coline Besson’s Arrakis, inspired by Frank Herbert’s science fiction novel Dune, is a sand plate inscribed with a rectilinear interpretation of the Arabic Kufic script; and Sound Clouds and Syllabaries by Ilka Helmig and Johannes Bergerhausen introduces a series of drawings capturing patterns of exhaled smoke generated during vocalization of syllables. Many of the projects in Quasi remain works-in-progress, mirroring the perpetual evolution of language itself—a fluid entity that lacks a definitive version and adapts in tandem with societal shifts.

Coline Besson. Arrakis (Inscription inspired by Frank Herbert’s novel Dune)

Held at the HMCT Gallery at the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., the exhibitions runs through April 14.

The Fingers Have Stopped Walking

When is the last time you used a phone book? A real, honest-to-goodness printed phone book? And used it for looking up a number, and not propping open a door or putting it on Junior’s chair so he can reach the table? Surprisingly, some of us even still get phone books regularly. Or we used to.

We don’t know about other states, but in New York, state law still requires phone companies to print and distribute phone books—with both residential and business listings—to all customers within their service areas. However, the Public Service Commission (PSC), which oversees the state law, is doing away with the requirement. Says the Albany Times-Union:

“Ending distribution of old-fashioned telephone books makes perfect economic and environmental sense,” PSC Chair Rory Christian said in a statement. “Customers today flip through the internet for phone numbers; they no longer bother to page through a phone book.”

There is an environmental component to it, as well.

Eliminating printed phone book distribution by the small telephone companies will prevent over two tons of paper waste annually, according to the department. Twenty-two small telephone companies still provide telephone directories to customers on a “general basis,” the department said.

But like anything, at least having print as an option is a good idea.

The order allows the companies to offer printed directories for free upon request and online directories at no cost. It requires them to inform customers about the discontinuation of the service and provide website instructions for accessing online or printed directories.

Opening Act

Back in the 2000s, Consumer Reports launched its “Oyster Awards,” recognizing/ shaming packaging that was impossible at best and dangerous at worst to get into. (There are times we have ourselves ripped open our flesh attempting to get a webcam, mouse, or some other device out of its package.) And even non-lethal packaging can be difficult for people who have disabilities. So kudos to Sony for developing packaging that is designed to be easy to get into. Says Core77:

Sony's Project Leonardo, a radical design for a customizable PlayStation controller for the differently-abled, is ready for prime time. Renamed the Access controller, it's in production and will launch on December 6th.

They have also thought out the packaging.

Sony's packaging designers have ensured the unboxing process will be seamless for the differently-abled. User feedback revealed that the standard packaging locking tab, seen below, was difficult for the target user to manipulate.

The designers then came up with a circle, previously unseen in Sony packaging, that users could hook a finger into and pull in order to break the seal.

However, this initial design still required the user to manipulate the tab through the slot in order to open the box. Thus the design was further refined into this:

The circle design is replicated throughout the interior, allowing easy access to all the various components.

Would that all packaging was this well thought-out.

Yes Yes

The Ouija board. Modern board game or age-old spiritual medium? Well, a bit of both, actually. Mental Floss looks at the history of the Ouija board.

Supposed talking to the dead likely dates back millennia, although the direct forebear of the Ouija board was the spiritualism movement in the US in the 1840s, founded by mediums (not media) who claimed to be the liaisons between the living and the dead.

There were a number of ways mediums made followers believe that they were communicating messages from those who had passed. One, table turning, involved the table moving or knocking on the floor in response to letters called out from the alphabet. Another method used planchettes—heart-shaped devices with two wheels at one end and a pencil at the point. Users would place their fingers on the device, which would then be guided by spirits who would “write” messages.

Both methods were not without their problems, so mediums sought a better way to communicate with the dead.

According to the Museum of Talking Boards, some mediums got rid of these methods altogether, preferring to channel while in a trance, while others built complicated tablesdials, and tables painted with letters that required people to use a planchette as a pointer. This method became the most popular—and paved the way for the Ouija board.

In 1886, a new talking board started being used in Ohio. It measured 18 by 20 inches and

featured the alphabet, numbers, and the terms yesnogood evening, and goodnight; the only other necessary object was a “little table three or four inches high … with four legs” that the spirits could use to identify letters.

As with modern Ouija boards, participants would all place their hands on the little table and the spirits would move it to spell out messages. Or they supposedly did.

any messages generated probably weren’t from spirits; instead, they were likely a result of the Ideomotor effect. This psychological phenomenon was first described in 1852 by William Benjamin Carpenter who, in a scientific paper analyzing how talking boards worked, theorized that the movement of muscles could occur independently of a person’s conscious desires.

These talking boards became quite popular, and in 1890, Elijah Bond, Charles Kennard and William H.A. Maupin decided to turn it into a toy. After all, what could be more frivolous and fun than talking to the dead? They filed a patent for a “Ouija board,” which weren’t all that different from the talking boards already being used. The name was supposedly an ancient Egyptian word meaning “good luck,” although it could just as easily be “yes” in French and German (oui, ja).  Manufactured by the Kennard Novelty Company they sold for $1.50, spirits of the dead sold separately.

There was a bit of reorg among the Kennard company, personnel changed, the boards were tweaked, and in 1966 the business was sold to Parker Brothers, which manufactured the modern Ouija boards, and in 1991, Parker Brothers was itself sold to Hasbro, which now owns all the Ouija rights and patents. 

No one knows if all this acquisition was foretold by using a Ouija board.

Marketed less as a game and more as a terrifying force of potential evil,

Hasbro has even allowed the creation of movies based on the game: Ouija, directed by Stiles White, came out in 2014, and Ouija: Origin of Evil, directed by Mike Flanagan, came out in 2016. (Several of the actors featured in that project would go on to star in Flanagan’s 2018 Netflix adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.) 

Actually, we’ve always found Monopoly to be more terrifying.

In related Ouija news, when in Salem, Mass., why not visit Ouijazilla, the world’s largest Ouija board. Says Boing Boing:

Ripley’s Believe It or Not! explains that the board is constructed of 99 sheets of plywood, weighs 9,000 pounds, and measures 3,168 square feet.

Ripley’s adds:

Aptly named Ouijazilla, this gargantuan board was unveiled on October 12, 2019, in the heart of the Salem Common. The hand-painted wooden board and accompanying planchette are modeled after the original Parker Brother’s glow-in-the-dark Ouija board—minus a few of Rick’s personal embellishments. Rick even got the blessing of Hasbro, Inc. to construct this enormous version of their game!

Believe it…or not.

Perchance to Dream

Do you have trouble sleeping? Do you also want to know Instagram’s terms of service? Well, if you fall into the narrow overlap of that Venn diagram, be sure to visit Legal Lullabies, a site that reads the terms of service for Instagram or TikTok as if they were lullabies. Via Laughing Squid:

Lull yourself to sleep with the soothing white noise of your favorite tech giant’s terms of service. Close your eyes, drift away, or scroll down to join the 1% of technology users that claim to have read ’em from beginning to end.

It’s About Time

Here’s a question for the ages: if time is linear, why are clocks round? Or so asks Tom Clark, a design student at London's Kingston School of Art. “Time to me is linear, a one way trip, a thought that is both exciting and terrifying, and our clocks should show that.” Ergo, his Linear Clock, via Core77:

“Linear is a mechanical clock that rises and falls, each drop marking an hour or a day. "A new way to watch the clock. A fully functional motorised clock that plays on our expectations of analogue and digital.”

It’s hard to get a sense of scale, but it looks like you’d need pretty good eyesight to tell the time.

But then, as Douglas Adams once wrote, “Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.”

Netflix Gets Real

Just as Netflix shuttered one IRL medium (DVD-by-mail), they are set to open another one: a chain of brick-and-mortar retail locations. Says NPR:

According to a Bloomberg report quoting Josh Simon, the company's vice president of consumer products, Netflix aims to open a network of stores offering retail, dining and live entertainment that leverage its TV shows and movies.

Netflix has not announced what it will be selling at the locations; it's unclear if DVDs or any type of physical media will be part of the inventory. 

In other words, it’s not going to be a Blockbuster Video-like store.

Called “Netflix House,” the first batch are set to open in 2025 in as-yet unannounced US cities.

“Netflix is an ecosystem. It opened a merchandise shop a couple of years ago. It’s investing in mobile games. It’s more than just a place for your remote control to gravitate to at the end of a long day,” said Rick Munarriz, a senior media analyst with the investment advice company, The Motley Fool, in a statement to NPR. “Success in the real world through location-based entertainment is the spoils of victory for a leading tastemaker. If Disney and NBC Universal can operate theme parks I give Netflix a decent shot of succeeding with this venture.”

Graphene Gets Intimate

Was it a good week for graphene news? It’s always a good week for graphene news! Oh, it had to happen eventually: graphene-enhanced condoms. From (who else?) Graphene-Info:

“Graphene is like a magic ingredient for condoms. It provides incredible thinness, strength, flexibility, and heat transfer – all the things you want in a condom. Our hybrid graphene-latex condom addresses some of the most common condom complaints head on, including pleasure, sensation, and comfort,” said Davin Wedel, CEO and founder of ONE Condoms.

… ONE Flex condoms are FDA-cleared for the prevention of STIs and unintended pregnancies, and the technological advancement is safeguarded by a patent. Thanks to carbon-based graphene, the condom has a natural charcoal hue. All ONE Condoms are vegan-friendly, non-GMO, nontoxic, and free from any harmful chemicals. All ONE Condoms are packaged in tubes made from 100% recycled paper.

What Are the Odds?

If you toss a coin, what are the chances it will come up heads? 50%, right? We learned this in high school probability class—you have a 50–50 chance of getting heads (or tails) on a random coin flip. Unless you were in a Tom Stoppard play, that was the generally accepted view of coin statistics.

However, a new paper changes everything we think we know about the randomness of coin-tossing. Via Boing Boing:

Researchers at the University of Amsterdam recently made a surprising discovery that challenges long-held assumptions about the randomness of coin tossing. After flipping coins over 350,000 times, the largest study of its kind, they found that coins have a slight tendency to land on the same side they started on.

The data showed a small but statistically significant same-side bias of 51%, just slightly higher than the 50% predicted by chance. This subtle yet remarkable finding defies the conventional wisdom that coin flips represent a random and unpredictable 50/50 outcome.

They enlisted 48 students to flip coins of 46 different currencies and videotaped each flip. This is not a new idea, but is the first experimental proof.

This same-side bias was first predicted in a physics model by scientist Persi Diaconis. His theory suggested that the physics of coin flipping, with the wobbling motion of the coin, makes it slightly more likely to land on the same starting side. 

What real-world implications might this have?

Says the paper:

Could future coin tossers use the same-side bias to their advantage? The magnitude of the observed bias can be illustrated using a betting scenario. If you bet a dollar on the outcome of a coin toss (i.e., paying 1 dollar to enter, and winning either 0 or 2 dollars depending on the outcome) and repeat the bet 1,000 times, knowing the starting position of the coin toss would earn you 19 dollars on average. This is more than the casino advantage for 6 deck blackjack against an optimal-strategy player, where the casino would make 5 dollars on a comparable bet, but less than the casino advantage for single-zero roulette, where the casino would make 27 dollars on average. These considerations lead us to suggest that when coin flips are used for high-stakes decision-making, the starting position of the coin is best concealed.

Maybe someone needs to design a special “gambling coin” that doesn’t wobble when it is tossed.

Haunting in the Boy’s Room

A friend of our was recently heading to the fitness center in his apartment complex, and, through the window, he could see a figure running on the treadmill. But when he walked into the fitness center, it was completely empty. Was it a ghost? he wondered. Our first thought, though, was that, if one were a ghost, why would they really need to work out? If there’s one good thing about being dead, it’s a least that you don’t have to worry about your weight.

Likewise, if you were a ghost, surely the last place you would want to hang out would be a bathroom. (And if you were at the Atlanta World Congress Center, it’s the last place one would want to hang out even for the living.) And yet, in Japan, ghosts seem to have a proclivity for the lavatory. Says Atlas Obscura:

In Japanese folklore, there are a number of spirits rumored to appear in bathrooms. Some reach out from the insides of toilets; others whisper through the stall walls. Each one has its own grim story and particular behavior, but they all share a connection to the bathroom.

OK, fair point: if you’re deliberately trying to be creepy and torment the living, the bathroom would probably be your best bet.

“The bathroom is a somewhat unusual space in a household or school or wherever it exists,” says Michael Dylan Foster, author of The Book of Yôkai: Mysterious Creatures of Japanese Folklore.

Is it? Must suck to be his houseguest. Here’s a strange sentence:

Foster describes bathrooms as liminal spaces in that they connect the normal, everyday world to a whole different realm, namely the sewer.

We never thought of plumbing as a portal to another realm.

“In that sense, the bathroom is a place of transition, and the toilet in particular is a portal to a mysterious otherworld,” says Foster. “Even though we generally flush things down, it would not seem surprising for something mysterious to come up through the toilet.” A hand reaching up through the toilet is just one of the possible creep-outs a Japanese bathroom ghost might visit on someone.

Click through if you want profiles of Japan’s most notorious “bathroom ghosts,” including Toire no Hanako-san, or Hanako of the Toilet, supposedly the ghost of a young girl who died around WWII, and now haunts school bathrooms. Smoking, no doubt.

Around the Webb, Part the Continuing: Beyond the Light

The images from the James Webb Space Telescope have inspired awe—but they are now inspiring art. Case in point: “Beyond the Light,” a new immersive visual experience based on images from the Webb, as well as other NASA imagery.

A collaboration of NASA and digital art space (and digital space art) ARTECHOUSE, the 25-minute presentation has viewers watch “projections of interstellar light, dust, and stars wash over the alabaster walls of the hall.” Adds NASA:

ARTECHOUSE’s NASA-inspired exhibit opened Friday, Sept. 15, in Washington, featuring visuals from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope and Hubble Space Telescope, as well as software-generated audio that corresponds to the light seen in each image. In a hall of 13 million pixels and 18K resolution film, participants do more than see the universe – they watch it fly past them. 

“In a very deep way, I think that our perception of art and beauty may be as real an experience of the nature of the universe as measuring it with formal sciences,” said Michelle Thaller, the assistant director for science communication at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.  “There isn’t a way to be a scientist and a way to be an artist,” Thaller said. “There’s just many, many ways to be human.” 

King à la Chicken

Last month, we pointed out that Shake Shack was looking to hire an “avocado aficionado.” If avocadoes are not your thing, British grocery chain B&M is looking for a chicken nugget connoisseur. Says Food & Wine:

The chicken nugget connoisseur will give feedback on the new product line. According to the job description, the right person for the position should be able to eat 20 nuggets from McDonald’s on her own and be “the first person in the kitchen whenever someone says there’s cake.” The application seems simple enough—all you have to do it submit a short paragraph explaining why you deserve to be the ultimate authority on chicken nuggets.

However, there is, as you would expect, a catch:

While the job description does specify that position offers a voucher worth £25in free food from the chain, no other compensation is mentioned. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you won’t be paid for your work (maybe they plan to discuss salary in the interview?) but it doesn’t exactly inspire confidence that this is a full time, well-paying job.

Or perhaps they’re just chicken to bring it up.

This Week in Printing, Publishing, and Media History

October 16

1758: American lexicographer Noah Webster born.

1847: Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre is published in London.

1854: Irish playwright, novelist, and poet Oscar Wilde born.

1923: The Walt Disney Company is founded.

1927: German novelist, poet, playwright, and Nobel Prize laureate Günter Grass born.

1950: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis is published.

October 17

1558: Poczta Polska, the Polish postal service, is founded.

1757: French entomologist and academic René Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur dies (b. 1683). After observing wasps building their nests, Réaumur was the first to propose making paper out of wood.

1771: Premiere in Milan of the opera Ascanio in Alba, composed by Mozart at age 15.

1814: Eight people die in the London Beer Flood.

1827: Bellini’s third opera, Il pirata, premieres in Milan.

1888: Thomas Edison files a patent for the Optical Phonograph (the first movie).

1907: Marconi begins the first commercial transatlantic wireless service.

1915: American playwright and screenwriter Arthur Miller born.

1919: RCA is incorporated as the Radio Corporation of America.

1979: American humorist and screenwriter S. J. Perelman dies (b. 1904).

October 18

1851: Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick is first published as The Whale.

1871: English mathematician and engineer, invented the mechanical computer Charles Babbage dies (b. 1791).

1922: The British Broadcasting Company (later Corporation) is founded by a consortium, to establish a national broadcasting service.

1931: Thomas Edison dies (b. 1847).

1947: American singer-songwriter and pianist Laura Nyro born.

1951: The Studio for Electronic Music was established at the West German Broadcasting facility in Cologne, making the first modern music studio.

1954: Texas Instruments announces the first transistor radio.

1964: English journalist, author, and programmer Charles Stross born.

1979: The Federal Communications Commission begins allowing people to have home satellite earth stations without a federal government license.

2019: NASA Astronauts Jessica Meir and Christina Koch take part in the first all-female spacewalk when they venture out of the International Space Station to replace a power controller.

October 19

1386: The Universität Heidelberg holds its first lecture, making it the oldest German university.

1745: Irish satirist and essayist Jonathan Swift dies (b. 1667).

1900: Max Planck discovers Planck’s law of black-body radiation.

1903: Swedish wrestler and actor Tor Johnson born.

1931: English intelligence officer and author John le Carré (né David John Moore Cornwell) born.

October 20

1632: English physicist, mathematician, architect, and designer of St Paul's Cathedral Christopher Wren born.

1882: American actress Margaret Dumont born.

1882: Hungarian-American actor Bela Lugosi born.

1971: American rapper, producer, actor, and admirer of fine, digitally printed posters Snoop Dogg ( Calvin Cordozar Broadus Jr.) born.

1973: The Sydney Opera House is opened by Elizabeth II after 14 years of construction.

2020: Canadian-American stage magician and author James Randi dies (b. 1928).

October 21

1772: English poet, philosopher, and critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge born.

1833: Swedish chemist and engineer, inventor of dynamite and founder of the Nobel Prize Alfred Nobel born.

1879: Thomas Edison applies for a patent for his design for an incandescent light bulb.

1914: American mathematician, cryptographer, and author Martin Gardner born.

1929: American author and critic Ursula K. Le Guin born.

1940: The first edition of the Ernest Hemingway novel For Whom the Bell Tolls is published.

1959: In New York City, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum opens to the public.

1969: American novelist and poet Jack Kerouac dies (b. 1922).

1983: The meter is defined as the distance light travels in a vacuum in 1/299,792,458 of a second.

October 22

1565: French book collector Jean Grolier de Servières dies (b. 1479).

1875: First telegraphic connection in Argentina.

1879: Using a filament of carbonized thread, Thomas Edison tests the first practical electric incandescent light bulb (it lasted 13½ hours before burning out).

1883: The Metropolitan Opera House in New York City opens with a performance of Gounod’s Faust.

1884: The International Meridian Conference designates the Royal Observatory, Greenwich as the world's prime meridian.

1964: Hell is other awards: Jean-Paul Sartre is awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, but turns down the honor.