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99 More Unuseless Japanese Inventions

By Kenja Kawakami (original 1997, American edition 1998)

From the author's introduction:

I introduced the term Chindogu in Japan in 1985. Coind from "Chin" meaning unusual and "dogu" meaning tool, it refers to a most universal concept: a gadget that appears to be useful, but on closer examination isn't. These inventions must exist, but they cannot serve a reasonable function. Inheritant in the premise of Chindogu is this fundamental contradiction.

Real products shown in this book:

Page 14, Rotating Spaghetti Fork, much like this: twirling spaghetti fork Looks like an Archie Mcphee product, though, not a serious tool.

Page 147, Umbrella Hat Plenty available at Amazon: page 1 of search results

Page 35, Cranium Camera Very similar to this one designed for smart phones: universal mount (And oddly categorized at amazon: "Cell Phones & Accessories > Accessories > Car Accessories > Car Cradles & Mounts > Car Mounts")

And the real king: Page 104-5, Self-Portrait Camera Stick keywords = selfie stick Like the other remote cameras in the book, it is shown with a bulb control instead of wireless, but hey, can't anticipate everything.

I had heard on the internet about that last one and when I saw the book for sale used (for a quarter), I decided to risk some money on it.

The Internet book photo going around: image at imgur

Maybe I'll scan a better one tomorrow from my "new" book.

Book at Amazon

The King of Ireland's Son

For reading aloud, one of my favorites is The King of Ireland's Son by Padraic Colum.

Free version at Gutenberg

It's very clearly a transcription of a story with a long oral history to it. The structure of the story telling itself was interesting to me. There are many characters who appear as the central character or a supporting character in different sections, there are many places where digressions into other stories happen or could be made to happen, if you wanted to tell it in a different order. It has many of the standard tropes of fairy tales and also some amusing consequences of that. "Red Riding Hood" isn't a name, it's a decription. The title character, and overall central figure of this book, doesn't have a name, he is merely the eldest (of three, natch) sons of the King of Ireland.

There are a couple of places where a story obviously could have been tied in, to give more background on a character or thing, that have not been used. It gives you the opportunity to spin your own yarns into this or prompt your kids to do so.

For example, from whence comes the Little Sage of the Mountain? And where did the great wing for his house come from?

Final thought: "how you get from A to B is to travel while sharing stories".

The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger

The Box
"How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger"
by Marc Levinson

I've finally read this book, which has been pretty much always checked out of the San Francisco Public Library since I've started checking. (It doesn't help they apparently only have two copies system wide.)

The book doesn't assume you know much about shipping before or after the container revolution, doesn't use much specialized vocabulary (save "TEU", see below) has extensive end notes that are mostly citations, and remains pretty focused on the changes brought about by containerized shipping.

As described in the book, shipping largely broke down into tankers, bulk, and "break bulk" before containers. Tankers should be obvious, bulk is things like an entire ship full of grain, and "break bulk" was the rest of it: hauled on and off by hand, moved and stowed by hand, all by longshoremen. Containers ate break bulk's lunch, then moved on to eat its breakfast and dinner, then, still not satisified, went off and cleared the shelves of the store that break bulk shops in.

Less metaphotically, the book tells the story of containers first making some stuff cheaper to ship via break bulk, making most things containerizable faster to ship in containers than break bulk, nearly eliminating dockside theft by longshoreman and thus reducing insurance costs, and then after that, having industry react to container shipping in previously unimagined ways that vastly increased the market for containerized transport.

Along the way, I found this book helped me understand a lot of changes that started before I was born and continue to evolve today. Things like the decline of major ports such as New York and San Francisco, which both suffered because container ports need a lot more space (and waterside space was not abundant in either) and because container ports benefit massively from cheap and easy connections to other modes of transport, which is cheaper and easier at the more inland Port Elizabeth (eating New York's shipping) and Oakland (eating San Francisco's shipping).

Each chapter builds on the one before it, but also each chapter attempts to be functional on its own. If you want to skip the chapter on union fights or the chapter on the standardization process, you won't miss out later on, similarly you can just read those if that's what interests you.

There are some things I'd liked to have more detail about, such as standardization. This book covers the ASA and ISO processes, but only up until the late 1960s, not say the BIC codes that identify particular containers these days. (BIC is a French acronym, and translates to something like Bureau of International Containers.)

There are also hints that lack of suitable large ports for container ships is an obstacle to the development of Africa. Checking online, I haven't found an easy to use list, but I did find:

World Port Source

Which shows locations of ports and gives generalized sizes when you drill down to individual countries. In spot checking, it looks like Greece has more ports, in about the same distribution of large, medium, and small, as all of sub-Sahara Africa. (Chicago is a "large" port and Baltimore is a "very large port" in World Port Source terminology.)

The term "TEU" is well known to anyone who pays attention to container ships, but that initialism is used only once in the text, on the last page. In a few places it is spelled out as "twenty-foot equivalent units", which makes me think the use on the last page was an oversight. Twenty-foot containers were more common earlier on in container history, but forty-foot containers are more common now. TEU is often used to describe the capacity of a ship, but you have to halve it to get the number of forty-foot containers it can carry.

Bonus for reading this far down:

9:30 video showing one factory's process for building containers (audio track is just music, so very safe to watch on mute) on Youtube

Shorter, on-line piece, on another aspect of world logistics: the pallet.

Whitewood under siege ("Whitewood" there meaning unbranded pallets.)

This offers a short history of pallets and then dives into the world of pallet resale / recycling and the heavily-handed recovery efforts of CHEP (the company that owns and rents blue pallets world wide), and newer efforts to displace wooden pallets with plastic ones. That piece has no mention of shipping containers at all.

Final thought: old 24' containers count as 1.2 TEU

T-Rex and the Crater of Doom

T-Rex and the Crater of Doom
by Walter Alvarez

Walter Alvarez at wikipedia

Walter Alvarez (born October 3, 1940) is a professor in the Earth and Planetary Science department at the University of California, Berkeley. He is most widely known for the theory that dinosaurs were killed by an asteroid impact, developed in collaboration with his father, Nobel Prize winning physicist Luis Alvarez.

A couple of months ago I saw a recommendation for the Crater of Doom book, but I can't recall where. The selling point that worked for me is that it's a very readable book about the history of the theory that an impact caused the death of the dinosaurs. (And many other things at the end of the Cretaceous.)

I found the first person style grating at first, but then I either got used to it, or it improved. The book covers his first inklings of a theory developed in the late seventies until, a couple of years after the discovery of a suitable impact crater on Earth, the Shoemaker–Levy comet hit Jupiter.

Besides the process of formulating a theory from the confusing evidence the various scientists involved had, the book covers how the science of geology has evolved from this process. When geologists believed the world was around 6000 years old, the massive damage seen from shifted rock layers led to "catastrophism" theories to explain this damage. Upon a shift to believing the world to be much, much older (but before knowing how old), geologists switched to "gradualism" which held that except for the very start of the world, things moved slowly.

Plate tectonics was the major shake-up before Chicxulub, initially resisted by geologists until it was shown to also be a gradual change, and then more widely accepted. But gradualists didn't want to consider that the Cretaceous might have ended in a day, and instead countered with theories that put it as a 0.5 to 3 million-year event. The Deccan Traps were created by volcanic action over about that long at about that time in history.

With a crater found at Chicxulub, the ejected debris and evidence of materials shifted by a massive tsunami all layered neatly around it, and all precisely after the Cretaceous layers and before the Tertiary layers, gradualists had to recognize that there were still some catastrophic events impacting (pun unintended) the world.

The book is about 150 pages of main text, and another 50 of notes, most of the notes here are academic citations not asides about the text. A quick read that I found very informative.

6 parts iridium per billion out of 8.

An aside of my own: Chicxulub is pronounced cheek-shoe-lube, so "Chicxulub Crater" makes me think of that passphase generation method presented in (xkcd "correct horse battery staple", a passphrase I find myself unable to remember, in contrast to the last sentence of the comic). And the description of what the immediate effects of the impact would have been like remind me of several xkcd "What if" exercises, such as the first with the near light-speed baseball.

Final thought: has much different passphrase generation methods