Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Checks Are in the Mail

In the last month, I've received four unsolicited checks in the mail. I didn't think much of it at first, thinking they were those "cash this check and we'll charge you 18% interest" deals.

The first one was a bit unusual, though, I have to admit. It appeared in what looked like a greeting card envelope, hand-addressed. (And no, it wasn't one of those mass mailings that uses a handwriting font to spoof handwriting... it was written in ballpoint ink.)

Handwritten greeting card from SenecaOne
Inside was this handwritten note and this check for $100:

$100 check from SenecaOne
Weird, I thought. Maybe a topic for a blog post, so I set it aside.

$25,000 check from AmeriStar
A day or so later, this check for $25,000 appeared. Different lender.

$15,000 check from Pacific Capital
Then a few days after that, this one for $15,000. Yet another lender.

Finally, today, I received this, from Seneca One, the company that had sent the first check for $100. It also arrived in a greeting card envelope:

Three checks, one for $15,000, one for $7,500 and one blank, from SenecaOne
This time I finally read the offer, and saw that it claimed the loans would be at 0% APR. The small print, however, got me confused very fast. The first part of the mumbo-jumbo, labeled Representations and Warranties, started out like this:

I hereby represent and warrant that: (a) I am a recipient of a U.S. state lottery prize, a casino jackpot prize, a corporate game prize or similar prize or annuuity entitling me to annual or more frequent periodic payments...
What??! Do they think I won the lottery?

Expecting some kind of scam, I Googled all three company names and found no complaints about them. So I called Seneca One to ask what the heck this is about.

It turns out, the names of winners of lotteries, jackpots and other prizes are all public. Usually, the home state is also known. But their addresses are not public, so companies like Seneca One, AmeriStar and Pacific Capital send out mailings to everyone in the same state who has the same name, hoping to find the lucky winners and help them out by advancing money on their winnings.

I have a pretty common name, so I guess this means that somewhere in Minnesota a member of my name-tribe has won a bucket of cash. Go team!

I got myself taken off the Seneca One list after a polite conversation with a service rep. He made it clear that it wasn't a ploy to rope me into a high-interest loan -- if I haven't won the lottery, they don't want to lend me money at any rate.

I wonder how many other inappropriate offers I'll get before the other companies tire of sending them?

Monday, November 29, 2010

Fast Food Toys: Puppies and Rats and Pigs (Oh My)

I admit to a love-hate relationship with fast food toys. Most of them are junk, and worse than junk, because they're made from plastic, yet will quickly end up in the trash at some toddler's house.

But there are a few I actually like, and which we kept. On purpose.

I found an example of this in the basement last week while doing some archaeology: five of the 101 Dalmatians flip cars from 1997.

Five 101 Dalmatian flip cars, dogs up
Each puppy drives a car made out of simulated "found objects," such as buttons, washboards or barrels.

Five 101 Dalmatian flip cars, dogs down
Pressing on the area in front of a character pushes the puppy driver down into the car, so that a different animal pops out on what used to be the bottom, driving the flipped car.

These animals are decidedly less hygienic-looking than the dalmatian puppies:

Gray pig in a brown wallow
A pig immersed in a wallow...

Pink pig with purple bow in an orange flour sack
...a butch/femme pig glaring out of her flower sack...

Blue rat in a yellow mattress
...and a rat in a mattress that's seen better days.

These are amazing little artifacts of the excessive nature of American culture. Think of the design time that went into conceptualizing each set of characters and their car, then prototyping them and their components. Molds were made, and the figures were cast and assembled (I imagine in China). Bagged in more plastic. And shipped back across the ocean to show up in a Minnesota restaurant to sell a small amount of food and promote a movie.

Of course, it's easy to see there's more to it than that. The toys help build a taste for fast food that will bring kids back as they grow older. The fast food companies play a long game.

But sometimes the toys transcend their role as lures, and deserve to be seen as decent toys, worth playing with. And worth keeping.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Seventeen Years Later, No Good Answers

NPR's Science Friday recently re-ran one if its shows from 1993. The topic was the Internet and how it was changing things.

This was the year the aphorism "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog" was coined. Gopher was still a common information retrieval system. And the Web was a scrawny three-year-old.

Cartoon of On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog
Boing Boing's Cory Doctorow notes about the show: "Call-in guests asked how we'd manage the glut of information, how we'd figure out what was true, what you could do with your overstuffed email inbox, and, of course, how copyright would fare."

All still questions we struggle with today. Which reminded me of a recent MPR Midmorning show titled Media Overload and the Future of Journalism. The guests, both veteran journalists who have a book out called Blur: How to Know What's True in the Age of Information Overload, gave tips on how to filter the constantly inflowing mass.

I haven't read their book, but I'm afraid they're fighting a losing battle. Clearly, many of us are not successful at assessing what sources to trust on a basic level, and when a story gets more complicated, even the skeptical can be at a loss. For instance, almost none of us has the tools or the time to locate the original source of the "Obama's Asia trip costs $200 million a day" canard to prove that it is incorrect.

We're wired to trust and depend upon the people we interact with every day, which as we evolved were limited to our family and our close-knit community. Mass media make us feel as though lots of other people whom we don't personally know are part of our inner circle. (Print media are less a problem on this front, I think -- reading something doesn't have the quite same effect as seeing a living, breathing person say the same thing. Especially in high definition.)

But these media personalities don't know us, and they don't care about us. They have their own agendas, whether political or profit-oriented. And we have to learn to filter them out. Or just turn them off.

Now there's an idea.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Recycling Plastic

What does a year or two of recyclable plastic from one family look like?

Four large bags and one small bag full of plastic containers
I've been saving all the plastic that comes through our house: takeout containers from the co-op, yogurt tubs, and other pods that enclose baked goods from grocery stores. It's been accumulating in the garage and the basement for quite a while, getting in the way, I have to admit. So I finally dealt with it.

The few plastic bottles we buy go out with the regular recycling, but this is the other plastic that shows up in our daily lives. I just sorted it by number and put all the identical pieces together, so they would nest tightly and take up less space. (Before I did that, it took up twice as much space as shown here.)

Here are some catches for those who want to recycle their plastic:

  • It has to be clean of food and grease.
  • Every separate piece needs to have a recycling symbol with a number, which means many container tops must be thrown away. I had to toss about a bag's worth of tops and other pieces that didn't have numbers. I did notice that the tops that did have numbers frequently didn't match the number of the container they came with, so there's a good reason for excluding numberless tops.
  • It's not picked up curbside in many/most places. In the Twin Cities, you can take it to Eastside Food Co-op in northeast Minneapolis. They accept plastic on Thursday from 3:00 to 7:00 p.m. and Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.
We had two bags of PET number 1, polyethylene terephthalate, which is usually clear and slightly flexible. (This is what soda pop bottles are made of.) PET is turned into Polar fleece, tote bags, furniture, carpet, and paneling. Sometimes it's actually recycled into new containers. The containers from the co-op are made from recycled PET.

Our next most common type of plastic was number 6, polystyrene, with one full bag. It's usually clear, also, and is more brittle than PET, although it's used in similar types of containers. It gets reused as insulation, light switch plates, egg cartons, vents, rulers, foam packing. It's also sometimes recycled into more carry-out containers.

There was a mostly full bag of Number 5, polypropylene. Mostly yogurt tubs, but also cottage cheese and cream cheese.

We had only small amounts of numbers 2, 4 and 7. I guess number 2 is common in bottles such as milk, detergent and shampoo, but not so common for other types of containers.

Breakfast cereal bags and straws are each made of only one type of plastic, but they can't be recycled because they don't have numbers on them. I haven't used a straw in years.

Sorting and cleaning all this plastic made me think even more about how I can cut down on the amount of plastic I use. I've been reusing the big salad containers at the co-op, and I'm on the verge of making my own yogurt.

More on the various numbers can be found here.

Friday, November 26, 2010

When Theories Go Wrong

My hero, science writer Maggie Koerth-Baker over at Boing Boing, recently pointed to a scientists' list of favorite discarded theories: Larmarckian biology, the sun goes around the Earth, ulcers are caused by stress, that sort of thing.

Geocentric diagram of the solar system
As Maggie puts it,

Science can contradict itself. And that's OK. It's a fundamental part of how research works. But from what I've seen, it's also one of the hardest parts for the general public to understand. When an old theory dies, it's not because scientists have lied to us and can't be trusted. In fact, exactly the opposite. Those little deaths are casualties of the process of fumbling our way towards Truth.
The whole list of outmoded theories is worth reading, but here's my favorite, from medicinal chemist Derek Lowe:
The "bad air" theory of infectious disease. This is another one that you can find persisting for centuries. I'd say that it lasted for several factors: there were indeed such things as poisonous vapors which could make a person feel sick, for one thing. And the environments that were felt to have the worst vapors were often ones that had higher rates of disease due to the real factors (standing water, poor hygiene, overcrowded dwellings, and so on). Finally, there's the factor that's kept all sorts of erroneous beliefs alive — lack of a compelling alternative. The idea of strange-looking living creatures too small to see being the cause of infections wouldn't have gotten much of a hearing, not in the face of more tangible explanations.

That last point brings up another reason that error persists — the inability (or unwillingness) to realize that man is not the measure of all things. Unaided human perceptions on the human scale don't take you very far on the macro-scale of astronomy, or the micro-scale of cell biology (much less that of subatomic physics). To me, the story of science has been the story of augmenting our perceptions, and realizing that they had to be augmented in the first place. (Emphasis added.)
I also particularly enjoyed the contributions of Judith Harris (about two-thirds down the page), Alison Gopnick (near the bottom of the page) and George Lakoff (the very last entry).

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Google Logos: Squashed Bugs and Flag Conspiracies

Since I'm a graphics curmudgeon, I tend to dislike the special logos Google puts up. (Here's an earlier post on one particular instance.)

It's a fun idea but all too often, the executions are conceptually and graphically weak. Yesterday, they put up this one:

Google logo with pie crust
I assume it's supposed to represent a pumpkin pie in the making, but when I saw it at this size on a search results page, I thought it was a squashed insect, lying on its back. Maybe at full size it wouldn't be so bad.

Google caught some flak recently for another one of its special logos, this one for Veterans' Day:

Google logo with American flag and shining sun
If anything, I would have thought people disliked it because the flag pole makes a very weak L shape and the flag makes the E unreadable. But no... the problem was that the bottom of the E looks like the Islamic crescent, and some folks thought Google was implying that the Islamic world would eclipse the West.

Interestingly, this wasn't the first time the designers asked the L to serve as a flag pole, with the flag covering up most of the E, leaving behind that threatening crescent.

Google logo in blue with Israeli flag
Hmm. Clearly, this is an anti-Israel statement.

It's fun, though a bit overwhelming, to visit the archive of all the logos, which extends over 10 years. I learned from browsing it that Google puts up a lot more variations than I had realized, many of them specialized by country. I also found out that I don't dislike all of them. Here are a few nice ones.

Google logo with Chinese lanterns replacing the Os
This one was done for China National Day this year.

Cave painting look to the Google logo
Marking the anniversary of the discovery of the Lascaux caves (seen in France).

Animated suggestive letters spell Google, made out of televisions and other electronics
Honoring the Korean artist Nam Jun Paik, who makes sculptures from working televisions and other electronics.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Hooking Up?

While visiting Daughter Number 4 a few weeks ago during the Rally to Restore Sanity, I told her I was hoping to hook up with some old friends from college, who I knew would be attending the rally.

DN4 told me it probably wasn't a good idea to use the phrase "hook up" around her teenagers, since it has an, ahem, alternate meaning these days. (Kind of like the way "lay with" is used in the Bible.)

I was aware of this usage (hey, I have a teenager, too!), but I have to admit I still occasionally use it in the old-fashioned, general way. But I promised not to say it around her kids, and I know she's right that it's likely to be misconstrued by others as well.

So imagine my amusement when I saw this quarter-page ad a few days ago in the Pioneer Press:

Newspaper ad with large headline GET HOOKED UP along with photo of pretty young woman with a golf club
The ad, created by the PiPress's in-house advertising department, is meant to promote its online advertising service Daily Deals. Or is it meant to promote an illicit meeting with a nubile young woman?

And what does golfing have to do with it?

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

How Rich Are You?

You know those lists that tell us whether Bill Gates or Warren Buffet is the richest person on the planet, or that Oprah Winfrey has fallen to number 12?

Here's a calculator that tells you where you'd find your income on that list (the graphic is preloaded with my ranking):

I'm loaded.
It's official.
I'm the 190,434,783 richest person on earth!

How rich are you? >>

Wow, nine digits, I'm pretty far down the list! But thinking about it a bit harder, I'm about 200 millionth on a list of about 6.7 billion. So that's actually in the top 3.17 percent of everyone on Earth.

Not surprisingly, the calculator was put together by CARE, and after you've gotten your result, the site gives a few facts about what it costs to make a difference:
  • $8 could buy you 15 organic apples OR 25 fruit trees for farmers in Honduras to grow and sell fruit at their local market.
  • $30 could buy you an ER DVD Boxset OR a First Aid kit for a village in Haiti.
It's not about guilt. It's just information that's easy to avoid when you live in a comfortable place, insulated from anything you don't want to know.

via The Same Rowdy Crowd

Monday, November 22, 2010

Bill Bryson's At Home (Again)

Cover of Bill Bryson's book At HomeOne of the few good things about flying is being trapped with a book for hours at a time. Recently, the book I couldn't escape was Bill Bryson's At Home. It's a rumination on how his home in England, a former rectory, came to be the way it is. And, by extension, how houses and private life in general took the form we know today. (I already wrote a bit about the book when I heard Bryson talk about home lighting, bathing, and servants on MPR.)

Bryson's house was built in 1851, and that year recurs as a historical turning point throughout the book, starting with the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, through the beginning of tea processing in India to the first use of the term "slum" to the introduction of the flush toilet. From the technological to the sociological, the book is one revelation after another. I've been spouting facts from its pages to anyone who'll listen for the past month.

Bryson uses each room of his home to bring up any topic he finds even tangentially related, and the result is amazing. From the book I learned that...

Through the mid-1800s, English clergymen were far from paupers. Rectors like the one who built Bryson's house were paid the equivalent of $400,000 a year in today's dollars in exchange for basically no work. They generally didn't have a sense of religious vocation or do the type of pastoral work we associate with ministers today: they gave one sermon a week, and many of them took the easy option of reading right out of a widely distributed book of sermons. What did they do with their copious amounts of free time? Some of them thought, wrote and invented. Their products include: a dictionary of Icelandic, novels such as Tristram Shandy, the power loom, the Jack Russell terrier breed, gas lighting, the submarine, many plant varieties, and aerial photography from hot air balloons, Not to mention the work from which we derived the term Malthusian and the concept of Bayes' theorem, which was unprovable when it was created but now is used to model climate change, predict the behavior of stock markets, arrive at radiocarbon dates, and for many other tasks that involve probability.

The subject of servants is fascinating. "By 1851, one-third of all the young women in London -- those aged from about fifteen to twenty-five -- were servants. One in three was a prostitute. For many, that was about all the choice there was" (p. 88). And this: "our standard image of servants in black uniforms with frilly caps, starched aprons, and the like actually reflects a fairly short-lived reality. Servants' uniforms didn't become routine until the rise of cotton imports in the 1850s. Before then, the quality of clothes worn by the upper classes was so instantly and visibly superior to that of the working classes that it wasn't necessary to distinguish servants with uniforms" (p. 95). Servants were treated as subhuman, generally, and worked from before the masters rose until after they had gone to bed, every day of the week. Yet this was considered a good job, compared to working in a factory or mine.

Washing clothes was a huge task, and laundry servants in each house had their own concoctions and processes. Bryson notes, "items of clothing made of different types of fabrics -- of velvet and lace, say -- often had to be carefully taken apart, washed separately, and then sewn back together" (p. 107). Laundry had to be done in the home, for the most part, because of the fear of infection, let alone squeamishness about the idea that an upper-class person's clothes might be washed with a lower-class person's.

In my earlier post, I noted Bryson's point that a typical middle class family in the evening would have shared candlelight that was no brighter than the amount of illumination cast by a modern refrigerator. Gas streetlights also were less helpful than you might think: they cast less light than a 25-watt bulb, and were at least 30 yards apart.

Oil lamps were better than candles, but oil sources were expensive. The best was whale oil. As many as 300,000 whales were killed in the 40 years before 1870. Bryson speculates that many, if not all, whale species would have become extinct if kerosene had not been invented. Distilled from coal tar, it soon led other inventors and entrepreneurs to the exploitation of oil (petroleum), which could be distilled into kerosene and gasoline. The latter was thought to be useless, by the way, because it was too combustible.

Indoor gas lamps became common in larger cities after 1820. Unfortunately, the burning gas could make people sick, and "blackened ceilings, discolored fabrics, corroded metal, and left a greasy layer of soot on every horizontal surface" (p. 123). But the lamps were about 20 times as bright as candles. "It is no coincidence that the mid-nineteenth century saw a sudden and lasting boom in newspapers, magazines, books, and sheet music. The number of newspapers and periodicals in Britain leaped from fewer than 150 at the start of the century to almost 5,000 by the end of it." (Changes in typesetting and printing had something to do with that, as well, I'd note.)

The cause of scurvy, vitamin C deficiency, was suspected but not recognized by science until 1939 (!) when a Harvard surgeon withheld the vitamin from his diet until he nearly died. After 19 weeks of malaise, he suddenly "took a turn for the worse -- so much so that he would almost certainly have quickly died had he not been under close medical supervision. He was injected with 1,000 milligrams of vitamin C and was restored to life almost at once" (pp. 167-168). By the way, humans are the only animals (except guinea pigs) that can't synthesize their own vitamin C.

The chapter on the dining room includes fascinating details about the spice trade and the discovery of the New World. About Columbus, Bryson writes, "It would be hard to name any figure in history who has achieved more lasting fame with less competence" (p. 174). Magellan, whom I always thought circumnavigated the globe, actually died before completing the journey; only 18 of his 260 men survived the voyage.

As anyone knows who has read Charles Mann's incredible book 1491, much of the food grown worldwide today came from the native people of the Western Hemisphere; Bryson puts it at 60 percent of all crops (potatoes, tomatoes, and corn, just to name a few). Like many a new technology, "No one foresaw this at the time, however. For the Europeans the irony is that the foods they found they mostly didn't want, while the ones they wanted they didn't find" (p. 176).

The British began drinking tea in the mid-1600s, and could purchase it only from China until the early 1800s because the Chinese managed to keep secret the process of curing the plants. In the 1840s, a Scotsman named Robert Fortune crisscrossed China, pretending to be a native and gathering information on how tea was grown and treated. By saying he was from another part of the country each time (since he spoke no dialect of Chinese), Fortune managed to learn enough to replicate tea processing in India.

Wallpaper was incredibly toxic, especially green wallpaper, which contained arsenic. Bryson speculates this may explain why the chronically ill so often recovered after being moved for a "change of air."

By the early 1800s, the power looms of the Industrial Revolution were poised to vastly expand the production of cloth, particularly cotton, but there was a problem with supplying the raw material, which originally came from India. The American South was perfect for growing cotton, but "the only variety that would grow well in most southern soils was a difficult type known as short staple cotton. This was impossible to harvest profitably because each boll was packed with sticky seeds -- three pounds of them for every pound of cotton fiber -- and these had to be hand-plucked one by one… even with slave labor it could not be done economically" (pp. 394-395). And this is where Eli Whitney and his cotton gin come in, of course. "Before cotton, slavery had been in decline in the United States" but the cotton gin made slavery economically viable. The vast influx of raw material increased production so much that there weren't enough adult mill workers, and so it also led the English mill owners to hire children. Thanks, Eli!

I've probably already tried to include too much here... there's no substitute for reading this phenomenal book yourself. (I didn't even mention the parts about cement, the telephone or the mousetrap.)

But I can't end without saying that Bryson points out that comfort as we now think of it was an unknown concept until almost 1800. It wasn't something you experienced yourself, but instead something you gave to someone else. Comfortable was first used in its modern sense in 1780, but by the early 1800s, it had become common to talk about a comfortable home or a comfortable living.

By then, everyone wanted comfort, but Bryson makes it clear that not many had it. The richest people ever were the U.S. financial moguls, such as the Rockefellers, Morgans, Astors, Carnegies and Vanderbilts, who had their heyday around 1900. Adjusted for inflation, they had more money than anyone today (and paid no income tax, to boot). But I am endlessly fascinated that they were no more comfortable (and in many ways were less comfortable) than many middle-class Americans today. They may have worn fur and eaten caviar, but they were hot in the summer, cold in the winter, and they had bad toilet paper.

To make so many of ourselves so comfortable, we've been using energy at an incredible rate. Bryson notes, "Of the total energy produced on Earth since the Industrial Revolution began, half has been consumed in just the last twenty years. Disproportionately, it was consumed by us in the rich world; we are an exceedingly privileged fraction" (p. 451).

Clearly, things cannot last as they are without major breakthroughs in clean energy production, combined with a willingness to give up some of our comforts. But as I flew across the country with Bill Bryson and his descriptions of what life was like before the invention of modern private life, I scribbled onto the title page of the book:

I'd be willing to give up cars, planes, and the long-distance trucking of food if we can just keep electric lighting, gas heat, running water and sewage.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Core of Journalism

"The role of the news media, the special status of journalism, isn't simply about providing information. All sorts of institutions provide information. The special status of journalism hinges on their ability to relentlessly, systematically, from a position of independence, hold concentrations of power accountable. That's the core of journalism. That's the core of a news media system in a democracy."

--Bob Jensen, professor of journalism, University of Texas (from this informal YouTube video, made by a student)

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Two Companies, Two Good Ideas

Minnesota CUP logoI came across a copy of the Minnesota CUP awards listing a few days ago. Small, entrepreneurial companies in six categories win seed money to help fund their start-ups. The two companies that sounded the most interesting to me weren't winners, though, but finalists.

In the clean technology and renewable energy category, Visiam stood out. They've designed an 8' x 24' thermal vessel that uses heat and rotation to sort trash right off of garbage trucks. The Visiam process reduces the trash volume by 65 percent, while it also removes organic matter and recyclables.

Small solar panel and LED lightA social entrepreneur finalist, Bright New Ideas, has designed a solar-powered LED lamp with its own small solar panel. It's meant for use in areas around the world without electricity, where people have to rely on kerosene for lighting. According to the CUP report, kerosene "can devour one-third of a family's income," not to mention that using a kerosene lamp nightly is the equivalent of smoking two packs of cigarettes a day. 2,000 of the lamps have been distributed so far. The nonprofit company can sell a subsidized lamp to a family for each $20.00 donation. They are also selling the lights, unsubsidized, to the public through their website as a way of funding the program.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The "Abortion Vote" Is a Hoax

I'm late to this story. It seems an Apple Valley, Minn., couple has put up a website asking the public to vote on whether or not they should terminate their 17-week pregnancy. (The site, birthornot.com, is currently not working... I wonder why.)

Well, as I suspected after reading just one story, it's a hoax, beyond any reasonable doubt. And it's not just a pathetic ploy to get some attention in the age of reality TV.

Pete and Alisha Arnold snapshot with imposed speech balloon reading Yes, we're that twisted
A bit of digging by The Blog of the Moderate Left turned up an e-trail a mile wide for the prospective father, Pete Arnold, showing that he's a generally conservative and specifically pro-life internet troll. One example is a wiki page he edited to define the term "pro-choice" this way:

The term “pro-choice” is used by men and women who support a woman’s right to kill an unborn child.

The term means that a woman has the right to determine whether or not she will be pregnant by killing a baby that has already been conceived.
On top of the e-trail, according to the City Pages, the Arnolds registered the domain name they're using for the vote in May... which precedes the supposedly unplanned pregnancy by several months.

So this is just the latest salvo in the battle to make pro-choice = inhumane instead of pro-woman. I wonder what percentage of people who heard about the story will also hear that it's a hoax? Chalk up another one for the myth-busting site snopes.com.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

For the Want of a Comma, Wisconsin Was Lost

Metal sign that says RECYCLE WISCONSIN with line drawings of different types of trash and recycling receptacles
Well, I suppose this sign would be worse if it said "Discard Wisconsin," but don't you think it's a bit drastic for the sign-maker to advocate recycling the whole state?

What could our neighbor to the east be recycled into, anyway -- something full of even more cheesy goodness?

Seen at a rest stop along I-94 near Baraboo, Wis.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Crapola -- for Real!

My neighborhood corner grocery is known for giving shelf space to products from small producers, especially if they're local or the product is requested by a customer. You never know what you'll find there. But who could have expected this:

Crapola granola bag on the store shelf
Made by a young couple near Ely, Minnesota, Crapola is cranberry-apple granola (get it?). Guess I should try some to see if it can make me, a self-described weird person, regular.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Museum of Unnatural History

While in Washington, D.C., a few weekends ago, I almost literally stumbled upon a brand-new storefront called the Museum of Unnatural History. (It's located in the midst of some new development near the Columbia Heights Metro stop, an area where I used to live. It used to be a bit hard-scrabble. Now there's a Target, Best Buy, Bed Bath & Beyond and Giant supermarket, alongside the beautifully renovated Tivoli Theater, which was an unused husk back in the day.)

Taxidermied coyote hanging upside down from the ceiling
Unnatural History, hmm. Having visited the Museum of Jurassic Technology in L.A., I wasn't too surprised by the off-the-wall (or off-the-ceiling) exhibits.

Small diorama of two human figures being choked by a mummy while two meerkats watch
This little diorama shows two treasure-seekers struggling in the Mummy's grip, while a pair of giant meerkats look on.

What was this place, anyway? It was too small to be an actual museum. And most of the museum appeared to be a store selling a bunch of funny products.

Wheel of Fortune-like wheel with multiple answers
The wheel of inquiry, just inside the door, beckoned to a pre-teen girl and her friend. Ask it any question, they were told (Why is the sky blue?) and see what it has to say. The answer the wheel gave her was "That darn butterfly."

Finally, I asked one of the helpful young guys hanging out at the counter what the place was all about. The museum (and its store), it turns out, are part of a nonprofit organization called 826DC, which offers tutoring and workshops to K-12 kids, often with a writing and publishing angle. It was founded in San Francisco by literary golden boy Dave Eggers.

The original 826 storefront is the Pirate Supply Store, and each of the seven other locations has a different intriguing theme and set of humorous products. The Museum of Unnatural History's products are designed by Oliver Uberti, creative director of 826DC and design editor at National Geographic.

Species Identification Flowchart poster in green and black
A species identification flowchart. My favorite part: Q: Can you see it? A: Not all of it. If from the neck down: It's you.

Cans of Primordial Soup, looking like Campbell's cans
Primordial soup!

Wooden box with a lid labeled Budget Hamster Crypt
Just what every rodent owner needs.

Patent medicine-like bottles with pieces of wood in them
Probably my favorite set of items is ostensibly from the makers of Petrified Wood: Confused Wood, Essentially Distraught Wood, and Disaffected Wood.

Despite their consistently nice packaging, all of the products in the store are basically gag gifts with no real substance or use. The proceeds from their sales clearly support a good cause but, still, I couldn't help thinking of a saying I once heard: "Design decorates the acceleration toward apocalypse."

Monday, November 15, 2010

Anyway, the Wind Blows

A Star Tribune op-ed from a few days ago sounded an alarmist note about the health risks of wind turbines. Hmm, I thought, the author's arguments about "infrasonic" noise remind me of the BoingBoing story about "electrosensitives" who claimed health effects even when a nearby radio tower was turned off for weeks.

Then today's Strib included a rejoinder from Dan Turner of Windustry, a nonprofit group that advocates for community-scale wind power. After briefly describing the lack of evidence that turbine noise can be sorted out from the ambient sound of wind in the trees, Turner wrote:

No one should be under any illusion that utility-scale wind turbines do not change the landscape. They are multimillion-dollar power plants hundreds of feet high... Wind turbines of this sort typically fit very well into a rural, agricultural landscape, with no significant impact on the agricultural use of the land and significant positive economic impacts on the community.

By contrast, our use of fossil fuels causes extensive environmental damage, such as death to our lakes from acidification and dramatic increases in the mercury content of our fish to the point where advisories against eating them are common. The serious, scientifically proven negative health effects caused by the use of fossil fuels are staggering: black lung disease, mining disasters, explosions, mercury poisoning, exacerbation of a wide variety of illnesses -- the list goes on.
Thanks to Turner and Windustry for reminding us all that we don't need a big metal tower nearby to suffer real effects from energy generation.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

If You Don't Use White, Why Would You Use Yellow?

I'm not a fan of the yellow pages (or the white pages, for that matter), which show up on your doorstep unbidden. I've managed to opt out successfully, so far.

1960s line drawing of for business men who can be found through the Yellow Pages
This vintage illustration by advertising agency BBDO graced today's Star Tribune. I admit it gave me a twinge of nostalgia for the time when I was glad the yellow pages were available. But it's been a while.

Friday's Pioneer Press carried an AP story about the death of phone books. Recently, New York, Florida and Pennsylvania okayed Verizon's request to stop carpet-bombing the white pages onto residential doorsteps. They've already stopped or are about to stop delivery in 12 other states. I wonder when Qwest will follow suit?

The story says that land lines are being disconnected at a rate of almost 10 percent each year. Since cell phones are not listed in the white pages, the directories are becoming practically useless:

...a survey conducted for SuperMedia Inc. by Gallup shows that between 2005 and 2008, the percentage of households relying on stand-alone residential white pages fell from 25 percent to 11 percent.
Down to 11 percent. Wow. The story goes on to say, though, that the yellow pages "are doing fine, at least according to the Yellow Pages Association. The industry trade group claims more half the people in the U.S. still let their fingers do the walking every month..."

Does that make any sense at all? That only 11 percent of people use the white pages, but over 50 percent use the yellow pages every month?

I wonder, hmmm. Perhaps this set of disparate percentages has something to do with the fact that the white pages are a financial drain on the phone companies, while the yellow pages are a revenue stream. Does a disinterested party like Gallup check the yellow pages' figures? Or are yellow pages advertisers silly enough to pay for ads with an imaginary circulation?

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Andy Singer Sticking It at Mississippi Market

Tomorrow (Sunday) from 2:00 - 3:00 p.m., Mississippi Market co-op on West 7th Street in St. Paul will be hosting an opening for an unusual art show. Cartoonist Andy Singer, along with Andrea McCormack and Richard Carlson, has been creating art from produce stickers for years.

Yellow and red cat art, made from fruit stickers
According to City Pages,

So how did they collect all of the stickers? According to Singer, all three lived in the same apartment building in St. Paul. Together, they collected stickers through eating lots fruits and veggies, and saving the stickers on wax paper. Once a hefty amount of had been collected (images can take hundreds of stickers each), they would get together and create their pieces.
The Pioneer Press says the three artists get together to have sticker art parties. Sounds like fun!

Some of Singer's sticker work has been shown previously on the cropart.com site. Site proprietor David Steinlicht puts it this way: "They're almost crop art."

Bike illustration made from stickers
I hope I can make it over to the co-op in all this snow! (I imagine Andy will ride his bike there.)

Friday, November 12, 2010

Animated Education Change

If you haven't seen any of the visually interesting animations by RSA Animate, this one about Changing Education Paradigms would be a good one to start with.

I can't embed the video here, so you'll have to go to YouTube to watch it. It's just a bit over 10 minutes long, and every bit worth it, despite its dry-sounding name. RSA is the Royal Society of Arts in the U.K., and they've hit on this fun way of popularizing talks by some of the best thinkers today.

Screen snapshot of RSA Animate video Changing Education Paradigms

Thursday, November 11, 2010

An Italian Interlude, Thanks to Fascism

A late but most welcome addition to the Hamilton Wayzgoose agenda was a showing of Italian cinema posters from the 1920s and 30s.

Red, green and white wood type title reading Italian Wood Type Cinema
The slides, shown by calligrapher and type historian James Clough, were accompanied by Italian music. It was a lovely interlude.

James Clough at his laptop with Bill and Jim Moran in the background
This is Clough, preparing to start the show. In the background are two of the Moran brothers -- Jim (left), technical director of the Hamilton Wood Type Museum, and Bill (right), artistic director of the museum.

Two Italian cinema posters with wood type
A hundred posters were shown, out of a total collection of 15,000, which is held at the Cineteca Italiana in Milan.

Two Italian cinema posters with wood type
The posters were collected within Milan. They were displayed to promote over 160 theaters that were in operation during those decades.

Two Italian cinema posters with wood type
Sometimes, American film stars' names would appear with variant spellings if they included letters like K, J or W that don't occur in Italian.

Two Italian cinema posters, one spelling Boris Kaloff's name Harloff
The posters were printed on cheap paper, befitting their intended short-term use. The slides make it clear they had been stored with haphazard folding for a long time before being sent to the museum.

But why were such ephemeral pieces kept at all? you might wonder. Clough's final slide explained the mystery: "Between the two World Wars, censorship laws required printers to deposit a copy of every poster with the police. Most unusually, the Milan Central Police Station hung onto their posters for many decades until they were eventually donated to the Cineteca Italiana."

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Chromatic Type

One highlight of the Hamilton Wood Type Museum's Wayzgoose was Paul Gehl's presentation on chromatic type specimens. Gehl is the custodian of the John M. Wing Foundation on the History of Printing at Chicago's Newberry Library. (He joked that he's sometimes confused with the janitor.)

Paul Gehl beside a projected screen of a wood type specimen book title page
Chromatic type is printed from multiple pieces of type, each in a different ink color. The following samples are all from the William H. Page company's 1874 book, Specimens of Chromatic Wood Type, Borders, Etc., which is held in the Newberry Library. The specimen book was used to sell the wooden pieces of type to printers. The types cost around 25 cents per letter, per ink color.

I apologize for the color shown here -- these are photos shot off a screen from a relatively dim projection. But that should motivate us all to go see them in person!

The word SIN in green and blue letters
Check out the thin white line between the light green and dark green of these letters. That's the paper showing through, and it's an intentional part of the design meant to add another color. Remember, each color is the result of the sheet of paper making a separate pass through the press.

Another chromatic wood type specimen
Getting each piece of type to hit the sheet of paper in exactly the right spot relative to the other colored parts of the same letter required amazing craftsmanship. The system of controlling positioning is called registration. These chromatic types were designed to register as much as possible (they were cut from a single multi-level pattern), but given the inherent inexactness of the presses, it's still quite a feat.

Chromatic wood type sample with color overlaps
Figuring out how many ink colors were used is sometimes tricky, because areas of color overlap create secondary colors. For instance, the sample at left, above, is only two colors, but appears to be three.

Another sample using the word Sin
Sin was a favorite word of the printers who designed and typeset the specimen book. Nice and short. And catchy, too.

A sample showing the fancy borders used
The borders around the pages are intricate as well. Each one is made up of many separate pieces along the sides, plus the corners.

As Gehl said, "There's a way in which this book spoils you" for other specimen books, because it's so beautiful.