Hello, hello, it’s Victor.
What a month, huh? Amid the good news and the chaos I’ve read a lot of cool things this month, and as usual here’s what I wanted to share this month.
Just so you know, I’ve changed the software hosting this newsletter from TinyLetter to Buttondown, which is why the email may look a tiny bit different. You don’t need to do anything to keep receiving it, but let me know if you have delivery or display issues!
Wikipedia is the best website
- The only lump of solid graphite ever found in the world is located in Cumbria, England. This meant the British Crown had a monopoly on the manufacture of pencils until 1662, when a method of reconstituting the graphite powder was found in Italy.
- The IKEA pencil is so popular that it has its own related page, short but complete with history, dimensions, and a casual recommendation from the British Medical Journal: “IKEA pencils are better at marking out cuts in the bone for facial and head surgery than traditional felt tipped pens.”
- The New York divorce coercion gang was a group of ultra-Orthodox Jews who kidnapped men who were refusing to grant their wives a religious divorce, and would torture them with a cattle prod until they gave in.
- When Australians vote, they can enjoy some democracy sausage.
- Vincent Kosuga and Sam Siegel were onion farmers and traders, who schemed to corner the onion market in Chicago in 1955. They owned 98% of the onions produced in the area: through a series of lies and cheating, they drove the price of onions from $2.50 a bag down to 10 cents (to the point the netting of the bags themselves was more expensive than the onions it contained). It made them millions, but led many onion farmers into bankruptcy and created shortages in other areas.
This led to the passage of the Onion Futures Act in the US, which has ever since prevented onions from being a commodity tradeable on the stock market.
- I found this out from this Half as Interesting video, which explains the whole story pretty well if you don’t understand markets either (the presentation is a bit obnoxious, though.)
- In the mid-19th century, Mormon pioneers in the US developed the Deseret alphabet, in an attempt to help immigrants learn English faster. Meant as an alternative to the Latin alphabet, its letters are more phonetically accurate for English sounds. It never enjoyed widespread use and was considered a failure, despite a decade of books, newspapers and street signs using it.
- There is a site dedicated to continuing the alphabet today, with up-to-date translations of the XKCD comic.
- Fascinating consideration from the times about its design: “The Deseret alphabet was purposely designed so as to not have ascenders and descenders. This was envisioned as a practical benefit for the alphabet in an era of metal type: after many uses, the edges of type sorts become dull, and narrow ascenders and descenders are most prone to this effect.”
- Related language evolution factoid: the disappearance of the letter þ (thorn) from Middle English was accelerated in part because the letter Y “existed in the printer’s type fonts that were imported from Germany or Italy, while Þ did not.”
(That letter actually represented a “th” sound, not “y”; but this is a side-effect of scribes writing it this way in shorthands. We still see remnants of this in phrases like “Ye Olde Shoppe”, actually pronounced “the”.)
- Phantom vibration syndrome is the hallucination that your smartphone is vibrating or ringing, when it is not. This could be triggered by anxiety (waiting for a call or a notification), false tactile perception (something brushing on your trousers if you keep your phone in your pockets), or false audio perceptions (noise perceived as a ringtone). I still feel this sometimes even though I’ve had my phone on complete silent (no vibration or ringer) for two years.
- The opposite of paranoia is called pronoia: it’s a delusion where a person feels that the world is conspiring to do them good, and everyone likes them, even when there is no evidence this is the case.
- The Swedish Prime minister Olof Palme was assassinated in 1986, and there were a lot of very different theories about who was behind it. Yugoslav and South African governments, the CIA, a drug dealer who mistook him as a rival, right-wing police officers, the PKK, were all among suspects. The case was officially closed in July of this year after 34 years of investigation, “while noting the lack of technical evidence”: the final suspect is Stig Engström, an insurance office worker annoyed at Palme’s policies who may have shot him without premeditation. He couldn’t be prosecuted, as he committed suicide in 2000.
- The Unicode standard (which allows characters from all languages and scripts to be rendered on computers) contains a few “ghost” Japanese characters that don’t really exist. They were introduced because of transcription errors in 1978, while clerks tried to list every single Japanese character in existence. Today, these mistakes still reside on almost all computers in the planet even though nobody actually uses these characters, and will likely exist for decades to come.
- Your company Slack is probably sexist: an excellent review of the different behaviours of men and women in online discussions, self-censoring and politeness expectations.
- How things were optimised in the USSR: a fascinating look at the planned economy utopia, why it wasn’t implemented — and why it would likely have failed, if it was.
- The incredible true story of the flight captain who got sucked out of the cockpit window because of a loose bolt, who survived after the other pilot held onto his legs for over an hour until they could land. (They actually thought he’d died already, but still held onto him “in fear that his body might get sucked into the plane’s engine” and kill them all.)
- OpenStreetMap, as ugly as it still is, is having a moment: “what likely started as a conversation in a British pub between grad students in 2004 has spiralled out of control into an invaluable, strategic, voluntarily-maintained data asset the wealthiest companies in the world can’t afford to replicate.”
- Some external impressions on the first citizen assemblies experiment in France.
- Eating too much (white) rice almost caused the Japanese navy to sink in the late 1800s. Soldiers (and many people in the cities) were affected by a disease called beriberi or kakke, which we now know is caused by a deficiency in vitamin B1. The vitamin is available in wholegrain rice but not in white rice, which was becoming more widely available at the time, thanks to mechanisation. This article from Atlas Obscura echoes the fascinating race to understand the disease. (via Absolument Tout)
- In the 20th century, the addition of iodine to salt was an extremely successful experiment to prevent goitre and developmental disabilities caused by iodine deficiencies. Today, health experts are worried we might see a resurgence of these problems in rich countries, because we’re all too obsessed with our fancy sea salts now.
Everything is depressing
Everyone right now
Good to look at
In my ears
Work! Design! Tech!
See you after the end of the world,