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From the archives…

The Dvorak Keyboard Controversy

Chasing QWERTY

When I was first learning to type, many years ago, I asked the same question everyone else asks: why are the keys arranged so stupidly? Why aren’t they laid out in a more logical order, as in, just to take one random example, alphabetically? The answer I’ve heard countless times is that the first typewriter keyboards were arranged alphabetically, but that caused mechanical problems—once typists became reasonably proficient, the keys jammed frequently because the hammers corresponding to certain frequently used letter sequences were too close together. As a result, so the story goes, the QWERTY layout was designed to prevent jamming by moving those letters farther apart, thus slowing down the typists to a speed the machine could handle. Meanwhile, a more sensible and efficient layout called the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard has been around for a long time, but never became very popular because QWERTY simply had too much momentum in the marketplace.

That story has frequently been used (even by me) as an example of how an inferior, inefficient design came to be the standard—and remained so, long after the original reasons for its success became irrelevant. But the truth is more complicated and surprisingly controversial. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Palais Idéal

The postman’s palace

The topic of weird, elaborate structures built by wealthy eccentrics has come up repeatedly here at Interesting Thing of the Day—think of the Winchester Mystery House, Neuschwanstein Castle, and Hearst Castle, for instance. Today we add to that list a palace constructed in its entirety by an eccentric of modest means: a postman named Ferdinand Cheval.

The story begins in 1879. Cheval, then 43 years old, had been working as a rural mail carrier in the southeast of France for 12 years. Because his daily routine involved walking about 20 miles (32km), mostly in solitude, he did a lot of daydreaming. One day (perhaps while his mind was elsewhere), he tripped over a small limestone rock. He noticed that the rock was oddly and beautifully shaped, so he wrapped it up in his handkerchief, put it in his pocket, and took it home with him. The next day, he went back to the same spot and found lots of other interesting stones. He recalled a striking dream he’d had in 1864, in which he’d built a huge castle of stone. Right then and there, he decided to make his dream a reality: he made it his life’s mission to collect enough stones to construct that castle. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Planning Your Own Funeral

Having the last laugh first

When my mother returned from a vacation to Florida with her sister a number of months ago, I called to ask how it went. “Oh, we had the best time!” she said. “We spent most of the trip planning our funerals. It was hilarious!” Well, that wasn’t quite what I was expecting to hear. On previous vacations my mom has gone on cruises, even tried parasailing, and I thought I had a pretty good idea of what activities she considered fun. Funeral planning was a bit of a surprise. It’s not that she’s ill or expecting to die soon. But, as she put it, “If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.”

I’ve seen some of those late-night commercials trying to sell funeral insurance, with the idea being that you can save your grieving loved ones the considerable expense associated with funerals and burial. But that wasn’t what my mother had in mind at all. (In fact, she made a point of saying that since she’d relieved the family of the burden of funeral planning, the least we could do is pay for it!) Rather, she’d gone to some local funeral parlors and asked them for pre-planning forms she could fill out, detailing her background and family contact information, and specifying her wishes for things like burial versus cremation, type of casket, a minister to preside over the ceremony, and so on. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Cochineal

Insect-based color

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

When I was a kid, there was a time when artificial red food dyes came under intense scrutiny because of their purported health risks. In 1976, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned the dye FD&C Red #2 because scientific studies showed it had carcinogenic effects on female rats. In response to the public concern about red food coloring, food manufacturers discontinued some of their red products, even if they didn’t contain Red #2. I remember this clearly because it meant that certain types of candy (such as M&Ms) no longer included red-colored pieces, and that I avoided any red candies I came across. More recently, another type of red food dye, FD&C #40, has been linked to increased hyperactivity in children, although it remains on the list of FDA-approved color additives.

Because of the controversy surrounding these artificial dyes, some food manufacturers have turned to another source of red coloring. Known as cochineal, or in some forms, carmine, this dye, produced from a type of insect native to South America and Mexico called the cochineal, has a history that goes back hundreds of years. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Paris Plages

Bringing the beach to Paris

August in Paris is traditionally the time when residents head off for their month-long annual vacations. However, the city is by no means empty. For millions of residents and tourists, life goes on as usual, but there’s still that seasonal urge to spread out a towel on the sand and soak up some sun. Paris is nearly 125 miles (200km) from the coast, but every summer since 2002, a full-blown beach has appeared right in the center of town, courtesy of the city government and corporate sponsors.

Paris Plages is the collective name of a series of sites set up around the city for summertime activities; they’re in operation for roughly a month each year from late July to late August. The idea was the brainchild of Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoë, who has taken numerous steps to make the city more accessible to pedestrians and cyclists. The original and best-known Paris Plage is constructed along the right bank of the Seine River, running almost 2 miles (3km) from the Louvre to Pont Sully (the Sully Bridge). What is normally the Georges Pompidou Expressway is closed to traffic (much to the dismay of commuters) and turned into a pedestrian walkway. Along the side of the road farthest from the river the actual beaches are installed—3000 tons of sand trucked in and trucked back out every year. In between sections of faux beach are areas devoted to other activities for both adults and children, such as rock climbing, rollerblading, and even t’ai chi. There are also restrooms, showers, first aid and police stations, and several mist zones where people can stand in a constant fine spray of water to cool off. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Hikaru Dorodango

Mud balls as art

Children, I have observed, seem to have an innate affinity for dirt. No matter how recently a parent has dressed the child in freshly laundered clothes, no matter how carefully the parent has attempted to keep the child geographically separated from any substance that might soil or stain, it is just not possible to keep a child clean for more than 60 seconds. I use the word “affinity” advisedly, because it implies not merely a liking, a preference, but a chemical attraction. Kids clearly have a talent for finding dirt, but also, dirt finds them. If you’re a parent, you know what I’m talking about. Eventually, having spent a sum equivalent to your monthly grocery budget on moist towelettes, you give up on keeping the child perpetually clean and set a new, lower but potentially reachable standard of not-entirely-covered-with-mud.

Mud, of course, is that particular species of dirt that children seem to find most fascinating (and which apparently finds them fascinating as well). As far as kids are concerned, mud is cool because it’s gooey and squishy and feels neat and adheres very effectively to your sister’s dress when flung from across the yard. Grown-ups find mud icky for exactly the same reasons, and dried mud, well, that’s somehow an even greater insult to cleanliness—it’s just so…unsightly. Among the words not commonly associated with mud are smooth, shiny, and beautiful. But that’s changing now, thanks to the renaissance of a traditional Japanese art form known as dorodango, shiny mud balls (or, more specifically, hikaru dorodango, ultra-glossy mud balls). Parents are now not only actively encouraging their kids to play in the mud, they’re getting their own hands dirty too as they spend hours refining ordinary dirt into elegant sculptures. [Article Continues…]

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