Tag Archives: Fave

Ten Reasons Not to Use QR Codes

ihr_qr_code_ohne_logoPixellated tattoos defacing advertising everywhere, QR codes are so fashionable. Oddly, the only people that actually want them seem to be marketing consultants, and I bet even they never actually use the things. The theory behind QR codes is great: a quick way of getting a long complicated chunk of text, like a URL, into your smartphone. In practice, though, I think they’re lame, and here are ten reasons why.

  1. They’re ugly. Far more obtrusive than barcodes, the last-minute addition of a QR code can ruin a subtle ad or poster design, and there’s no way of minimising them—if you make them too small or reduce the contrast, they no longer work.
  2. They’re an enigma. “What am I supposed to do with this?” The QR code contains no affordances, no clue about how to read it. The user has to know in advance.
  3. They’re not integrated. One day there might be a little “read QR code” button in the toolbar of a smartphone browser or contacts app, but not yet. And so…
  4. The user has to install additional software. To be precise, he or she has to 1) already know what a QR code is, 2) go to the app store on their phone and know to search for “QR code reader”, 3) choose between the many, many competing readers, and 4) wait while one downloads and installs (which will often be an experience they’re paying to have). Maybe they’re standing in the hot sun doing this over a flaky 3G connection. Good luck.
  5. They’re not standardised. For example, STQRY.com uses its own special QRs, which you need to download its app to read; scanning an ordinary QR code from within STQRY doesn’t send you off to a web browser, it just gives you an error message. Let’s hope users can tell just by looking what kind of QR code they’re dealing with.
  6. There are no clues. A barcode always writes out the numbers it encodes, but QR codes contain no indication what’s going to happen when you scan them or where you’ll be sent.
  7. They’re often pointless. Right beside the QR code you’ll often find the home page (“Of course,” says the boss! “You can’t leave the URL off!”) and by definition the URL’s short and easy to type (“We spent $100,000 getting a short URL!”) and people have a browser right there on their smartphone, and know how to type, and know what a web address is. So how do you think they feel when the QR code sends them to the home page?
  8. Especially if the home page turns out be smartphone-unfriendly.
  9. They’re insecure. Because there’s no preview, every QR code is like clicking on a phishing link you can’t check. Because they’re physical objects, an enterprising criminal could easily replace ones on a billboard or poster with their own stickers. That we don’t hear about this happening is more evidence almost nobody’s using QR codes.
  10. They’re not future-proof. Some are generated by bit.ly or other proprietary services, which won’t last forever. When a URL breaks, at least you can tell what it was meant to be, and perhaps search for its new location; in 30 years, to find hardware and software that can read old QR codes you’ll have to go to a museum.

Downton Abbey: Season 10

Downton Abbey with National Trust signs

By Season 10, Downton Abbey will be owned by the National Trust, and each week we’ll follow the lives and loves of the volunteer tour guides.

Episode 10.1: Panic during the visit of a minor Royal: a school group from Ripon has stolen all the toilet paper. Graffiti in the scullery!

Episode 10.2: Consternation over the newly-restored library’s anachronistic antimacassar. The gift shop’s Downton teatowels ruffle feathers.

Episode 10.3: In a very special episode, doddering Lord Grantham visits, has a cup of milky tea, and tells stories of Downton’s history [clip show].

Episode 10.4: High-tech audioguides put the older volunteers at sixes and sevens; mystery trysts in the butler’s pantry.

Episode 10.5: A Devonshire tea disaster escalates tensions between the gift shop and café. Beastliness with a costumed interpreter.

Episode 10.6: As the Heritage Lottery Fund grant deadline looms, Downton’s way of life is—once again—in peril.

Episode 10.7: Unwashed mugs in the tearoom create bitter divides. A butter-churning demonstration goes terribly wrong.

Episode 10.8: A location shoot for the latest Bond movie saves the day, but will it stop Downton being turned into a corporate team-building retreat?

Christmas Special S10: Downton Abbey is chosen as the setting for a WWI-era costume drama on ITV; Season 11 will follow the cast and crew’s lives and loves.

Tom Cruise is Always Getting Older

In 2012, Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp, and Brad Pitt all turned 50. As is usual in Hollywood, when leading men age their on-screen romantic interests become relatively younger and younger. Here’s Mr Cruise’s age over his 30-year career plotted against that of each leading lady, from 24-year-old Rebecca De Mornay to 34-year-old Malin Åckerman.

  1. The last time it was deemed acceptable for Mr Cruise to be seen with a woman his own age was in 1992; he was 30. (Demi Moore, A Few Good Men.)
  2. Trivia: Tom Cruise has co-starred with Nicole Kidman three times: Days of Thunder (1990), when she was 23; Far and Away (1992), 25; and Eyes Wide Shut (1999), 32.
  3. The data suggest Mr Cruise’s female leads age only 10 years to his 30: when he’s 80, his co-star will be 44. If you find this creepy, you are not habituated to Hollywood movies.
  4. Although, since each of Tom Cruise’s three marriages ended when his wife hit 34, this graph may be expressing some sort of physical constant—τo (Oldest Woman Touchable By Tom) = 34. If this is correct, either his co-stars’ ages will level off, or Mr Cruise will be forced to stop acting.

The Great Penguin Sweater Fiasco

Natural disasters create a surge of helplessness in those not directly affected. Many people want to do something concrete, something more than a quick donation or a Like on Facebook. Nowadays this desire to help can be harnessed by social media, but it’s easy to waste the time and goodwill of volunteers if this isn’t managed well.

On October 5th 2011, the cargo ship Rena ran aground on a reef near Tauranga in the Bay of Plenty, a couple of hour’s drive from Auckland, New Zealand. It leaked 350 tonnes of fuel oil, which blanketed nearby beaches and killed or injured dozens of seabirds and seals, among them Blue Penguins (Eudyptula minor), the most common penguin species around New Zealand coasts. Thousands of volunteers went to Tauranga to help shovel oil-soaked sand, and veterinary specialists set up a facility for cleaning oil-soaked birds. The Rena spill was and is a national tragedy, and all around the country people wanted to know what they could do to help.

Back in 2000 a similar oil spill near Phillip Island, Australia, left many Blue Penguins oil-covered, and a bird rescue team through trial and error developed a little knitted sweater (or jumper, in Australian) that would keep penguins warm and stop them from preening oily feathers. The Tasmanian Conservation Trust organised a knitting drive, hoping volunteers could supply them with 100 or so. As often happens with unmanaged email requests, it was wildly over-successful: they ended up with 15,000. The Trust page now politely requests people stop sending them jumpers; they’re supposedly filling a small room somewhere waiting for a gigantic oil spill, but are actually being sold at the Phillip Island gift shop, adorning toy penguins.

(FUN FACT FOR JOURNALISTS: Tauranga is in New Zealand, Phillip Island is in Australia. NZ and Australia are different countries, 1300 miles apart—the same as the distance from Canada to Mexico. You would think there’d be no need to point this out, but…)

© saskyumchar on Ravelry

Six days after the Rena grounded, in a discussion forum on the knitting website Ravelry, one keen knitter posted the Australian penguin sweater pattern, and said a friend’s daughter was in contact with the bird rescue crew, and there were Blue Penguins in need of sweaters. A Napier wool shop, Skeinz, volunteered to receive completed sweaters and send them on to Tauranga. Having seen what happened in Australia, I created a Ravelry project page that anyone knitting could link to, partly to make a gallery of completed sweaters, but mostly so there was a single place that allowed control over the message and would let me notify knitters when enough had been received.

My concern from the start was that we had no direct link to actual rescue workers: our only contact was the coordinator’s friend’s daughter, who was “in touch with” the veterinarians (note the similarity to that classic “friend-of-a-friend” setup we see in urban legends), and all communication was by two-stage mail, channeled through Skeinz in Napier. The coordinator at Skeinz then went on holiday, and the fun began.

First the pattern was linked to by multiple different forums in Ravelry, and knitters from all over the world got busy. Then it started being emailed to knitters not on the network. Most critically, the call to action, full pattern, and mailing address were posted in the Skeinz online newsletter, where anyone could link to it, up to October 25th. And link to it they did: knitting blogs, conservation websites, the popular craft site Etsy, the Huffington Post, and the world’s most-read blog, BoingBoing.

© beforesunrise on Ravelry

Hundreds of sweaters started flooding in, far outnumbering the rescued penguins. Skeinz was contacted by local and international media wanting pictures of cute penguins in sweaters. The organiser’s holiday coincided with a long weekend, so there was another delay in shutting down the campaign. But by now the horse had bolted, as the online newsletter content remained unchanged and was easy enough to copy and paste into emails; the penguin sweaters had gone viral.

And by now it turned out that none—not one—of the sweaters was actually used. The rescued penguins were being kept in warm water and recovering under heat lamps, much less stressful for wild birds than dressing them in a cute knitted sweater. Nobody seems to have asked the vets and rescue workers if they in fact needed penguin sweaters, and those interviewed seemed a bit surprised by the international knitting effort.

The end result is that “hundreds, possibly thousands” of unneeded sweaters will continue arriving at Skeinz. The organiser claimed, “the sweaters were a way for people to help, even if they weren’t going to be used.” Apparently the sweaters will be sent to a conservation group in Australia, though with crates of penguin jumpers already in storage it’s hard to see when they’ll ever be needed; some might be sold for unspecified fund-raising purposes. It all seems like rather a poor use of thousands of hours of volunteer effort: the knitters would have made more of a difference supplying gloves and hats for the volunteer clean-up crew, or donating a few dollars to Greenpeace, or writing to their MP with their views on maritime safety or offshore oil drilling. Knitters didn’t sign up to make sweaters for sale; they made them for penguins.

© jenromero on Ravelry

So history repeats itself in the Great Penguin Sweater Call To Arms, and the result is once again squandered effort and goodwill. This is an example of how not to use social media to rally the troops; how should a similar effort be organised in the future? Enlisting the crafting skills of volunteers really can work: see for example the knitting drives of WWII, the Knitted Periodic Table project, or the campaign to knit a cosy for the shipping containers of Christchurch. Here’s what I’d do, if we had a chance to rerun the project:

  1. Set up a dedicated website: say, using a WordPress blog (these can be updated from any computer) or even a Facebook fan page. Registering a domain name would help its credibility and make for more concise links.
  2. Make sure all URLs in tweets, emails, and forum postings point to that top-level domain name (e.g. www.volunteerproject.org), not an individual page with a knitting pattern (www.volunteerproject.org/whattoknit.html).
  3. Get the visible support of the group being helped: say, a short message and photo from them on the home page. In this case, perhaps show a sweater actually being worn by an actual rescued Tauranga penguin. Most importantly, the group being helped should also have editing privileges for the site, so they can correct mistakes and add a news release as soon as any target is reached.
  4. Date-stamp everything, especially any page that might be linked to or emailed out of context. Add day-to-day updates on targets: the number of rescued birds, how many sweaters received, and so on, so volunteers can judge whether their effort is still needed.
  5. Keep any pattern or instructions from being emailed. Make the instructional text hard to copy and paste by embedding pictures and CSS styles, so it’s more convenient for a supporter to just pass on the page URL (write out the URL on the page itself and tell them to only mail this). Block search engine spiders so the pattern won’t be indexed (and cached) by Google, only the home page. The goal is to have the pattern existing in just one place, on that web page.
  6. Put the mailing instructions on a different page from the pattern, preferably the main page. Make sure this has a press kit link and instructions for media, in case the whole thing goes viral.
  7. And when the target is reached, put a big THANK YOU on the home page, post a gallery of the finished project (say, happy penguins in their sweaters), and… take the pattern down.

UPDATE, 7 March 2014: The Phillip Island Penguin Foundation have changed their tune, and put out a new call for more sweaters, with predictably huge amounts of media coverage. They strongly imply in their advertising that this will save oil-soaked penguins (although there’s been no oil spill since 2001). If you read the fine print, you find out the sweaters will actually be sold in the gift shop. I guess “knit sweaters for us to sell in our gift shop” is not the sort of thing that goes viral.

UPDATED UPDATE, 8 March 2014: The Penguin Foundation have added a paragraph (in a hurry, I presume, given it’s in a different font, with typos) to clarify they don’t need jumpers for actual penguins, and hey, isn’t this a great opportunity to work on your knitting skills! But all the media outlets and Facebook shares and retweets still seem convinced the jumpers are for saving oily penguins.

Ten Facts About Werner Herzog

Auteurs are not like you and me. For example, the German director Werner Herzog is at first glance something of an eccentric. When you learn more about him, however, you realise he is not simply an eccentric, but an ECCENTRIC, written in foot-high capitals carved into an enormous granite boulder that has crushed our will to live.

Recently there was a fad for listing fake facts about actor Chuck Norris: “When Chuck Norris does a pushup, he isn’t lifting himself up, he’s pushing the Earth down.” These even have their own website, novelty book, and amusing t-shirt.

After reading a recent interview, I realised that one could compile a similar list of Facts About Werner Herzog.

It would be just like chucknorrisfacts.com, except everything would be true.

  1. Werner Herzog was invited to guest star on The Simpsons, but asked for a DVD because he had never seen an episode.
  2. Werner Herzog saw Avatar, but didn’t care what happened in it.
  3. Herzog was once shot during an interview but rather than stop, tell the police, or get first aid, he kept speaking dourly.
  4. Herzog hates introspection so much he won’t look in a mirror and so doesn’t know the colour of his own eyes.
  5. To propose to his wife, Werner Herzog walked a thousand miles across the Alps, because that is what a manly man does.
  6. Herzog (unlike Oliver Stone) read the Warren Commission Report into the JFK Assassination. He quite enjoyed it.
  7. Werner Herzog only respects people who know how to milk a cow, and he can tell who knows how just by looking at them.
  8. Klaus Kinski and Herzog simultaneously plotted to kill each other; Herzog was about to firebomb Kinski’s house, but was too scared of his big dog.
  9. More people die in Werner Herzog’s movies than Chuck Norris’s if you count his crew.
  10. Herzog thinks of himself as a little girl in a fairy tale who steps out at night and holds open her apron and stars rain into it.

If you were to put these on a t-shirt, I think Herzog himself would hunt you down, fix you with his pitiless gaze, and anatomise your sad buttonless-shirt-wearing hipsterness until you cried. This is, after all, a man who really believes the twentieth century was a mistake; the entire twentieth century. You wouldn’t like him when he’s angry.

The Aftershock Diary


Kim Hill is telling us to sprinkle vacuum cleaner dust over our poo. In a morning full of surreal experiences, this somehow takes the cake. Friends tell me they’re peeing in buckets, or digging latrines in the yard. This being Christchurch, talk turns to fertilising lemon trees.

Our city’s message to the world is a stoic, “Thanks, but we’ll cope.” A surprising number of businesses open as best they can, before realising we’ve technically had a natural disaster and you’re supposed to be traumatised. It’s the spirit of the Blitz, except the weather is lovely and sunny, and John Key has all the gravitas of Churchill’s stunt double.


My seismometer is a small plastic Big Bird, which reliably topples over on about a 5.2. I’ve had to stand him up a couple of times today. He’s calibrated against readings from the New Zealand Earthquake Bot, which tweets details of each aftershock (it has three times as many followers as the Christchurch Press). Because the Bot takes ten minutes to report, people have been playing the guess-the-magnitude game on Twitter. They tend to overestimate.

Advanced seismic activity detection technology

Some people are completely freaked out. Some are just angry, and loudly rain curses on the aftershocks—I don’t tell them these will go on for weeks. Some, like me, are sleeping through everything but a 5.0. Everybody’s waiting for the 6.0, which like Godot is supposed to be coming, if not today, then definitely tomorrow. We’re oscillating like Vladimir and Estragon between boredom and despair.


I visited the earthquake shelter at Burnside High, hearing that they might need water containers. Exhausted volunteers have been deluged with donations and are well-supplied with bedding, food, and everything else. Someone donated a game of Twister, especially challenging in an earthquake. Donated books include The Da Vinci Code (a perfect opportunity to get rid of one’s copy, I suspect), and Angela’s Ashes, in case evacuees need reminding things could be worse.

Good news! Eva Longoria, from the Television, is praying for us. All I can think is that it’s a bit late: Eva, if only you had used your celebrity powers and intervened with God before He smote us with His wobbly wrath. Perhaps God only works the cleanup crew.

Huge diffuse disasters are hard to take in, but little ones hit home. Canterbury Cheesemongers—the best cheese shop in Christchurch—may have to be demolished, and there’s nothing we can do about it. This, curiously, affects me more than damage to historic homesteads or friends’ houses: a bit of the Christchurch I know is going away, as will many other bits, all special to somebody.


More aftershocks. The Burnside High shelter has been hit hard, and it’s been evacuated of its evacuees. I spontaneously decide to spend the night out of town. Kaikoura is supposed to be quite tolerable at this time of year. Heading North through Woodend, the only things damaged seem to be the churches.


Frustration with the aftershocks is boiling up. Two different people told me this morning’s 5.1 caught them on the loo, which rather ruins your equilibrium for the day. Megan comes up with a potential rallying chant for an organised anti-earthquake protest:

We wake!
We shake!
We don’t want any more quakes!

I’m helping my friend pack up her house for evacuation: cracks in the cinderblock walls, the laundry turned into a water feature by a broken pipe, and a hole I can see the outside through. That could be handy for summer ventilation, I suggest. She is not swayed. We both join the Facebook group to save Canterbury Cheesemongers, knowing it probably won’t help.

Somebody comments in my blog that the lack of fatalities reveals divine intervention. Presumably God didn’t like Haiti as much as Christchurch. Perhaps it’s our pious name. Wellington, there’s still time to rename yourself: forget Wellywood, go with something more devotional. Suggestions in the comments.

Twitter has been an indispensable information source, but it’s also fertile ground for rumours. Within a few hours of the quake, there were fake damage photos and denunciation of the fakes. Now the fuel storage tanks at Lyttelton are supposedly on fire, and there’s a petrol shortage, both also quashed before they’re too widely retweeted. The best news for a while is that we can drink the water again: tweeted within half an hour of the press release. I’ve been brushing my teeth from a mug for days, and am happy to dump the stockpot of boiled water sitting in the laundry tub. It feels like I’m flushing away the unreality of the last few days. Now to see what reality has in store.

[Also posted, essentially as above, on the NZ Herald website, www.nzherald.co.nz, 9 Sept 2010.]

Christchurch Rocks

Thirteen things I learned from an earthquake:

  1. The Southern sky is a beautiful thing, especially on a cloudless night. We forget this when we live in cities, until the electricity is suddenly cut off and you see the stars again. You see them especially well at half-past four in the morning, standing shivering in your driveway hoping the shaking doesn’t start again. Oh look, Orion.

  2. We don’t have many uncontrolled four-way intersections in Christchurch, so our road etiquette gets a bit rusty. This is particularly noticeable when the traffic lights all stop working. Roundabouts then come into their own, as fabulous earthquake-proof solutions; far safer than relying on politeness and common sense.

  3. While waiting for the power to come back on, I took a stroll around the Styx Mill Reserve. I don’t think the ducks noticed there had been a natural disaster. A few boulders fell off Castle Rock, but otherwise the earthquake’s effect was only on things we’d built, often badly. Unlike floods, hurricanes, or volcanoes, the damage from earthquakes is a collaboration between humans and nature.

  4. You imagine buildings reduced to rubble, but so far these are just pictures on the news. Nothing’s fallen down in my suburb. The real damage is cracked roads, flooding from ruptured water mains, the creepy threat of contaminated drinking water, and fire breaking out where gas lines have broken.

  5. Always secure your bookcases to a wall.

    Cunning strategy for securing bookcase against aftershock

  6. Those abstract emergency-kit lists suddenly become very concrete. My wishlist: a flashlight right beside the bed • candles and matches in the kitchen drawer • some way to charge the iPhone: a car charger and a solar panel would both have been useful • a car power socket to 240V three-pin plug adapter, for charging a laptop or camera battery • prepay wireless 3G modem • a dozen bottles of water stashed in the cupboard • cash, for when ATMs aren’t working • a gas BBQ to cook that defrosting meat in the freezer.

  7. The first thing I did after the shaking stopped was tweet. Twitter, especially in the first hour, was well ahead of the mainstream media in instantly breaking news, locating the quake, and reporting damage. Radio also did a good job later that morning, so I’d add a battery-less radio to the emergency stash; the web streaming services of the radio stations did not cope well. TV took all day to catch up and was generally hopeless.

  8. For Twitter to work, everyone has to agree on a hashtag, like #eqnz. Joyce was tracking the clumsy “hashtag wars” different media outlets were fighting. Some people pointed out the correct hashtag wasn’t the most important thing about the quake, which is certainly true if you weren’t using Twitter. But many, many people will be using Twitter or a similar service soon as a primary information source, so the media have to get used to mentioning the “official hashtag” in their stories.

  9. Building things out of bricks is a fine English tradition, but England doesn’t straddle a plate boundary.

  10. Looters in Christchurch will break into a liquor store, ignore the brandy and single malts, and carry out cases of beer. And I would bet it wasn’t even very good beer.

  11. I went for a stroll to look for obvious quake damage, but my part of Bryndwr is so grungy it was, quite seriously, hard to discern. Was that street sign leaning drunkenly last week? Quite possibly. Is that wall newly crumbling, did a boy racer scrape it, or was it just shoddily built in 1955? Look for fresh plaster dust on the asphalt.

  12. It’s actually possible to have an earthquake this severe not kill anybody. So, as Robyn points out, we’re not a third-world country. Hurrah. Not that Christchurch escaped scot-free: billions of dollars of damage, and 90 or so buildings trashed, many grand and historic.

  13. Lucky last: this was not, by a long shot, “the big one”. That would be a magnitude 8.0 or so, which hits New Zealand every couple of hundred years (the last was in the Wairarapa in 1855). The Richter scale is logarithmic, so that’s something ten times as wobbly as today’s—the size of the San Francisco earthquake (3000 dead), or the 2008 Sichuan quake (which killed 68,000). Let’s not get too complacent about our building codes.

[Appeared 7 Sept 2010 on the NZ Herald website.]

What, if Anything, is Big Bird?

Years ago, when I was in the early stages of my PhD, I gave a joke presentation at a graduate student conference on the taxonomy and evolution of Big Bird. It was the sort of thing you’d see at any conference on avian evolution: a Latin name, reconstructed skeleton, possible place on the great evolutionary tree of birds. The tone was completely serious, despite the subject matter—the sort of thing that might be found in the Journal of Irreproducible Results back when it was funny.

Then, in the storage cabinets of the Berlin Museum of Natural History one summer’s day, I had a revelation—an original scientific insight that I am happy now to share with the world. I realised what kind of bird Big Bird almost certainly is, and figured out something of its evolutionary history.

I presented my findings at the Christchurch PechaKucha #8 in May, and now the audio and (more-or-less) synchronised slides have been uploaded. (A pecha-kucha is a talk in which 20 slides play for exactly 20 seconds each, and the speaker tries to keep up.) All the science is real, and no Big Birds were harmed in the course of this research. Enjoy.


(This talk was BoingBoinged, twice! And I got a mention on the NPR blog too, so my status as card-carrying member of the Liberal Elite is forever assured.)

I also tweeted from Christchurch PechaKucha #8, as the format seemed well-suited to Twitter.

First, a pronunciation lesson from Mark Dytham: Pe-CHACH-ka. Perhaps easier to say if you’re drunk. • The effects of being in a car crash described as a “rapid decline in function” by a medical student. • “In 1981, Queenstown was less like Aspen, more like Twin Peaks.” • “Spotlight is my happy place: everybody else is so miserable there.” Chloe Geoghegan showed us her lovely embroidered naive signwriting. • The Master of Ceremonies got progressively drunker and more touchyfeely over the course of the evening. Called Christchurch “Auckland” not once but three times. • Jo Burzynska coined the word Oenomatapeia: music made from recording the sounds of rustling vines and gurgling fermenting wine. • The best quote of the night: “I had a recurring dream about a man putting me in the ground, cutting me up, and turning me into women’s bottoms.” • And an awkward moment afterwards: well-wishers complimented my deadpan jokes, like claiming to have a “PhD in giant flightless birds”. Yuk yuk.

The World’s Population in a Big Box

How big a box would you need for everybody?

Well, how much space do people take up? Assuming an average human mass of 65 kg, and a density of close to 1 (since we only just float), a person occupies 65,000 cubic centimeters. In theory you could pack about 15 people in a cubic meter (or 1,000,000 cubic centimeters). That seems like a lot, doesn’t it? Let’s check. It turns out the record for stuffing smallish undergraduates into a telephone booth is 22, and a phone booth is about 1.3 cubic meters inside. And remember, the folks near the bottom of the Big Box will be somewhat…compressed. Nevertheless, let’s assume an average of 13 people per cubic meter, since those near the top won’t be so packed so tightly.

The current world population is 6.6 billion. At 13 people per cubic meter, that’s a 507,692,308 m3 box; if it’s a cube, the Big Box is 798 m on each interior side. Say we make it an even 800 m (which allows for another 56 million people, probably as many as will be born by the time we’ve wrangled everyone inside). Don’t ask me how thick the walls would need to be; I’m not an engineer.

Exactly how big is a box 800 m a side? That’s half a mile. The World Trade Center was 417 m high. The box would take up 32 city blocks in Manhattan; it’d fit neatly into a fifth of Central Park.

The world’s population thus occupies an eighth of a cubic mile. All together we’d weigh 430 metric megatons. The pressure on the poor folks at the bottom would be half a ton per square inch, or 64 atmospheres–in fact, what you’d feel nearly half a mile deep in the ocean. The sea of humanity indeed.

Obviously you’d want to be one of the last inside the Big Box. How many people would be left standing when it was filled? The area of the top of the box is 640,000 m2, and a common estimate for crowd density is 6 people to the square meter. That means nearly 4 million people get to stand on top of everybody else; coincidentally, about the population of New Zealand. Lucky Kiwis!


Things I Used To Think Were The Same

  • Lily Allen and Katy Perry
  • Dick Frizzell and Bill Frisell
  • Benicio del Toro and Guillermo del Toro
  • Greensboro and Greenville
  • The Counting Crows and the Black Crowes
  • Ryan Adams and Bryan Adams
  • Henry Adams and Henry James
  • Henri Rousseau and Jean-Jacques Rousseau
  • John Hughes and John Waters
  • John Belushi and Jim Belushi
  • John Hurt and William Hurt
  • Jeff Bridges and Jeff Daniels
  • Larry McMurtry and Cormac McCarthy
  • Joseph McCarthy and Eugene McCarthy
  • Roddy McDowell and Malcolm McDowell
  • David Carradine and Keith Carradine
  • Zach Braff and Zac Efron
  • The Thin Red Line and The Thin Blue Line
  • Gates of Heaven and Days of Heaven
  • tombolo and tombola
  • Wes Anderson and P.T. Anderson
  • Saul Steinberg and Shel Silverstein
  • Flann O’Brian and Flannery O’Connor
  • Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs

Playground Classics

lorelang.jpg The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren
Iona and Peter Opie
New York Review Books, 2000 (orig. 1959)

A remarkable study of the oral folklore of kids, some of which has been passed on for centuries, solely by word of mouth and strictly child-to-child. I recognized some of the English traditions from my own childhood in New Zealand; since this sort of stuff was never written down until the Opies got started, they were probably bought over by children emigrating from England a hundred years before. Some of the Opies’ highlights follow.

The sausage is a cunning bird
With feathers long and wavy.
It swims about the frying pan
And makes its nest in gravy.

¿Cuándo la gallina cruza la carretera?
Waarom steekt een kip de weg over?

The boy stood on the burning deck
A-melting with the heat.
His big blue eyes were full of tears;
His shoes were full of feet.

A cry of jubilation: “By gog jolly custard!”
Whilst inflicting torture: “Mummy’s little cissy!”
By one being tortured: “’Ere, nark it!”

On April 1st, known as Huntigowk Day in Scotland, one sends the unsuspecting on spurious errands; for example, to procure a long stand, or cooking glue, or a bucket of blue steam, or striped paint.

The girls of two villages “used a set of verses, too coarse to quote, in which they imputed gross unchastity to each other.”

In Northern England, one’s baby teeth, when lost, are burned with salt. If they were left unburned, a dog might find and eat them, and dog teeth would grow in their place. Or, one might have to search for them in a pail of blood in Hell. So burn those teeth.