Stationery – a couple of videos

December 13, 2015

Here are a couple of videos on the stationery theme:


Everything you didn’t know you wanted to know about stationery

December 13, 2015

For some people (myself included) buying new stationery is a joy. Visiting a stationery store, you are surrounded by potential; it’s a way of becoming a new person, a better person. Buying this set of index cards and these page markers means I’ll finally become the organized person I always wanted to be. Buying this notebook and this pen means I’ll finally write that novel. James Ward

For me, going into Ryman’s [stationery shop] is the most extreme sexual experience one could ever have. Morrissey


Writing a book about stationery has its downsides. James Ward, author of Adventures in Stationery, aka The Perfection of the Paper Clip in the USA, knows this. I recognise the feeling too. Whenever I try to explain the rules of cricket or the appeal of trainspotting to my Spanish students I can see a glazed look coming over their eyes. Ward refers to one kind of interviewer he would come across on the promotional tour for the book. Basically, they were out to take the piss. One interviewer was particularly obnoxious:

What? And you’ve got a girlfriend? Seriously?”

 Ward is the man behind the Boring Conference, which the website defines as “a one-day celebration of the mundane, the ordinary, the obvious and the overlooked”. Topics under discussion have included toast, discontinued IBM tills, domestic inkjet printers of 1999, car park roofs, the sounds made by vending machines, the carriage numbering system on the London Underground, the Shipping Forecast, barcodes, yellow lines and the history of dust. The talks tend to sell out very quickly, so maybe they are not so tedious after all. You can see a video of Mr. Ward below:

Ward’s particular fixation with stationery began as a child and has continued into adulthood. He even has a “Stationery Club”, which is modelled on those reading groups that have become quite popular in the last couple of decades. Before each meeting, one member nominates a piece of stationery, and then all the other members use it for a week and then discuss it in groups.

Adventures in Stationery begins with a long disquisition on the evolution of paper clips. Other topics include paper, pencils, pens, glue, business cards, correction fluid, staples, post cards and filing cabinets

I loved the story of Bette Nesmith who was according to Ward, not a very good typist. These mistakes would help this divorcee from Dallas to come up with a brilliant idea. Doing overtime one Christmas she noticed a man in the bank, painting a sign, and she realized that every time he made a mistake, he just painted over it with the background colour. She thought why not do the same thing with paper? You will just need to create a solution which is paper-colour. Then, whenever you make a mistake, you can paint over it and type it again. Nesmith would gradually perfect her typewriter correction fluid, which later became known commercially as Liquid Paper. Over the next 25 years she turned the Liquid Paper Corporation into a multimillion-dollar international company. In 1979 she sold the business to Gillette for $48 million. Her 13-year old son Michael, who had helped her to fill hundreds of bottles each month using squeezy ketchup bottles on the miniature production line in their garage, would later go on to become one of The Monkees, a band created for a TV show. A few months after selling her company, his mother died in 1980 at the age of 56. Michael Nesmith inherited half the fortune from Liquid Paper, much of which he ploughed into PopClips, a precursor to MTV. In the words of Ward, if video killed the radio star, then it was funded by correction fluid. In Europe the most familiar brand of correction fluid is Tipp-Ex, which like Liquid Paper, was developed to help correct typing errors.

Then we have Dr. Wolfgang Dierichs. A researcher for German manufacturing company Henkel, Dierichs was sitting on a plane when he had an idea that would go on to revolutionize the world of glue. He saw a woman carefully applying her lipstick and then he realised that you could apply glue with a similar mechanism. Using a thin twistable tube would be cleaner and more convenient. There would be no more pots, and brushes; all you would need to do is remove the lid and apply as much adhesive as you needed. I have to say that this idea would have occurred to me but Dierichs spent his working day surrounded by adhesives and it just came naturally.

The chapter on business card features a couple of internet sensations. He refers to a 2008 video featuring “infotainer” Joel Bauer called Your business card is CRAP!, which has had nearly 2.4 million hits.  After dissing every other business card in the world he shows the only card which cuts the mustard, which just happens to be his:

You see that card? This is the most impressive business card I’ve ever seen. It’s mine. It took me twenty-five years to design this.

Another similarly modest man is Chen Guangbiao, the Chinese recycling entrepreneur, whose business card proclaims:

Most Influential Person of China

Most Prominent Philanthropist of China

China Moral Leader

China Earthquake Rescue Hero

Most Well-Known and Beloved Chinese Role Model

China Top Ten Most Honourable Volunteer

Most Charismatic Philanthropist of China

China Low Carbon Emission Environmental Protection Top Advocate

China’s Foremost Environmental Preservation Demolition Expert

The story of the accidental discovery of the Post-it note is quite well known. Spence Silver of the adhesives department was trying to produce a really strong glue. He ended up with exactly the opposite. Luckily for him a colleague, Art Fry, found an alternative use. Fry was in a choir and would get frustrated when the little bits of paper would fall out of his hymn book. What he needed was a weak glue to stick these bits of paper in the book. And so the Post-it note was born.

There are many more fascinating stories in the book. Pencil cases are apparently less popular in the USA because everyone has lockers. We discover that Day-Glo paints and dyes that allowed U.S. planes to fly night missions from aircraft carriers during World War played a fundamental role in the development of highlighter pens. And did you know that Norwegians wore paper clips as a symbol of resistance against the Nazis, or that the British tape manufacturer Sellotape makes half its annual sales during the three-month run-up to Christmas?

The name Sellotape’ came from Cellophane. As this was at that time a trademarked name, its inventors, Colin Kinninmonth and George Gray, changed the “C” to an “S” so that the new name could be trademarked. In America they say Scotch Tape. This product, another one from 3M, was being tested in car bodyshop. According to 3M legend, one car painter complained about how tight the company was being by applying glue only to the edges and asked “Why be so Scotch with the adhesive?” As well as perpetuating negative cultural stereotypes about the supposed stinginess of our friends from north of the border, they were also using scotch instead of Scottish to refer to the nationality. Be that as it may, the name stuck and Scotch Tape has become another money-spinner for 3M.

What about the future of stationery? It will surely play a less central role in our digital world. However, it will not disappear altogether. The paperless office is just a pipe dream for the time being. But even in the world of computers, the internet, e-mail, smartphones, and tablets, we will have skeuomorphic design. In computing Skeuomorph is an element of a graphical user interface which mimics a physical object. The word comes from the Greek skeuos (meaning container or tool), and morphê (meaning shape). Steve Jobs was a big fan. The digital world is full of these visual metaphors: magnifying glasses, envelopes, scissors, pencils and rubbers all feature on the Microsoft Word interface.

Ward is convinced that stationery is not on the verge of disappearing. He concludes with an impassioned defence:

And so people who rush to announce the death of handwriting or those tech-evangelists looking forward to the singularity, the moment when artificial intelligence outsmarts human intelligence, should not get too excited. Stationery is not about to die. It’s been around since the dawn of civilization and it’s not going to let some plucky upstart like the Internet kill it off without a fight. And besides, a pen doesn’t suddenly stop working just because you’ve gone into a tunnel; no one has ever needed to borrow a charger because the battery on their pencil has died; and if you’re writing in a Moleskine, you never need to worry about having a bad signal or it crashing before you’ve had a chance to save your work.

The pen is not dead. Long live the pen.

I don’t fetishize stationery in the same way that Ward does. I don’t believe in its miraculous powers. Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed the book and I am sure that I will never look at paper clip in quite the same way again.

One cannot die a nicer death than by breathing hydrocyanic acid gas

November 8, 2015


Haber’s life was the tragedy of the German Jew – the tragedy of unrequited love. Albert Einstein

In times of peace humanity, in times of war the fatherland. Fritz Haber


Louis Pasteur, Joseph Lister, Edward Jenner and Alexander Fleming are all rightly in the pantheon of science for having saved millions of lives. Then we have those unsung heroes. John Enders (measles vaccine), Karl Landsteiner (blood groups, which led to transfusions), Gaston Ramon (diphtheria and tetanus vaccines) and Abel Wolman (chlorination of water) should all be household names. However, there is one man, a bald, moustached chemist, who wore a pince-nez, whose contribution to saving lives dwarfs all of these. There is just one problem – he is considered by many to be a war criminal. Today I am going to tell you the story of this man.

Fritz Haber was born into a well-off Jewish family in Breslau, Prussia (now Wrocław, Poland) on 9th December 1868. His mother, Paula, died during childbirth and his father, Siegfried, was a successful merchant who dealt in dye pigments, paints and pharmaceuticals. His relationship with his father was distant and often problematic; Fritz was actually closer to his step-mother and his half-sisters. In 1886 he went to the University of Heidelberg, where he studied under Robert Bunsen. He also attended the University of Berlin and the University of Karlsruhe, where he met Carl Bosch, a fellow scientist, who would play an important part in his life. After university, Haber came back to Breslau to work at his father’s chemical business. The two did not get along well; they were constantly clashing and Siegfried finally accepted that they could not work well together.

Although Haber was born to a Jewish family, in 1892 he converted to Protestantism. Many Jewish scientists, for whom religion was not particularly important, went down this path. It was a way to help them advance their careers. Clara Immerwahr also converted from Judaism to Protestantism to further her scientific career. A chemist and the first woman Ph.D. at Breslau University She would become Haber’s first wife in 1901. She may have expected to share a full intellectual life with her husband, like the Curies. Alas, it would be very different. Clara Haber became a Hausmütterchen (little domestic matron), sacrificing her career. While Clara’s ambitions were thwarted, Haber thrived.

Haber’s great contribution, in collaboration with Carl Bosch, now an engineer from the chemical company BASF, was to discover a way of synthesising ammonia for fertiliser from nitrogen and hydrogen. The Haber-Bosch process made it possible to create huge amounts of fertiliser. It seemed miraculous, and was described as creating “bread from air“. The fertiliser went on to be used on a large scale, leading to a huge increase in crop yields, doping away with the fear of famine in large parts of the world. Haber would now be regarded as a hero if he had stopped here.

It was six years later that the dark legend of Fritz Haber began. World War I had been going for less than a year. It was 5 p.m. on the afternoon of 22 April 1915, and Haber and his select squad, known as Pionierkommando 36, were dug in along a four-mile front on the German lines during the Second Battle of Ypres. Facing them were French Canadian and Algerian troops. Haber and his scientists had more than 5,000 cylinders of chlorine gas in liquid form at their disposal. The order came to attack. The operators, who were all wearing protective masks opened the valves and released the entire contents within ten minutes. A strong breeze swept a blanket of thick green-yellow gas westward into no man’s land and then over the French trenches. The unprotected soldiers began to cough and vomit blood, their chests heaving as they struggled to breathe. This just made them suck more of the poison down their lungs. Those troops that were not suffocated broke from the trenches and fled, abandoning fifty guns. The German infantry were then able to take the abandoned trenches. By the end of the day 5,000 troops had died and 10,000 more were fighting for their lives in the field medical stations. Modern chemical warfare was born.*

The action was a clear violation of the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907. Despite the success of the attack, Haber was said to have been disillusioned. He hadn’t wanted a mere experiment. He had called for an all-out attack with a far larger volume of gas, to deliver a knock-out blow. He would later complain that if the military had followed his advice and launched a massive attack the Germans would have won the war.

Ten days after the chlorine attack at Ypres Clara committed suicide using her husband’s service pistol. The night before Fritz had celebrated his promotion to captain with a dinner party. The generally accepted theory is Clara could not bear living with a man who had perverted science in this way. But Fritz’s patriotism was more powerful than any moral qualms. It was Hermann, their 13-year old son, who heard the shots and discovered his mother’s corpse. Fritz did not even wait around for the funeral. The next day he was off to the eastern front to disperse his poison gas, leaving his grieving son alone to cope with the loss.

After Germany lost World War I, the Allies sought to bring Haber to trial as a war criminal. But instead Haber was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1918 for his ammonia discovery and he remained an important man in German science for more than a decade. He does not seem to have shown much remorse. He corresponded with the former Kaiser, who was now living in exile in Holland. Wilhelm had in mind the coming rematch with the Allies, and was especially interested in the possibility of the “total gassing of large cities”. Haber continued to defend chemical weapons as a higher form of warfare. It was Haber who provided the quote that I used for the title of this post:

One cannot die a nicer death than by breathing hydrocyanic acid gas.”

He was said to be rather melancholy, one of his friends describing him as seeming to be ‘75 per cent dead’. But this appears to have been because of Germany’s defeat. Under the terms of the Versailles Treaty Germany had to pay 20 billion gold marks by May 1921, and a further 132 billion in subsequent payments. This was apparently two-thirds of the world’s gold reserves. What’s more the Allies had declared the country’s patents, including the Haber-Bosch process, null and void, making it even more difficult to pay off the reparations.

Haber had a plan that would enable Germany to pay off its reparations. He would spend six years trying to extract dissolved gold from the oceans. He believed that a tonne of seawater contained several milligrams of gold. Accompanied by a team of 14 researchers, Haber set sail for New York from Hamburg in July 1923 on the ocean liner Hansa, which had a laboratory to test the waters for gold traces. He did successive voyages in the Caribbean Sea, the Pacific, the China Seas, the Indian Ocean, and the Mediterranean. He also had a research team testing some 5,000 samples of sea water in great secrecy in Berlin. Their conclusion that the actual concentration of gold per tonne was 0.008 milligrams, a thousandth of the original estimates, put paid to any possible commercial exploitation.

His other great project was more successful, an insecticide known as Zyklon A. A German chemical company, Degesch, tweaked his formula before WWII to produce an efficient second generation of the gas called Zyklon B. Within a few years the Nazis were gassing millions of Jews, including relatives of Haber, with Zyklon B.

Fritz Haber died in 1934 at the age of 65. The Nazis were in power and had no need for Jewish scientists. Although Haber’s war service exempted him from dismissal in 1933, he chose to resign his directorship. Having been offered the directorship at the Sieff Research Institute in Mandatory Palestine, he was on his way to the Middle East when he died of heart failure, mid-journey, while staying at a Basel hotel. It is in this Swiss city where you can find his grave. Shortly before passing away he asked that the ashes of his first wife Clara be placed in his grave. His wishes were respected.

What can we say about his legacy? The number of people he saved from starvation far exceeds the number of soldiers whose breath he took away. It has been claimed that as many as two out of five humans on the planet today owe their existence to the discoveries made by this brilliant German chemist. Haber’s process is one of the reasons why there are now seven billion people on the planet. Science writer Sam Kean argues that Haber cared little about fertilizers, and that what he was looking for was cheap ammonia to help Germany build nitrogen explosives. Be that as it may, it is impossible to deny Haber’s scientific contribution. Nevertheless, it is a cautionary tale of the dangers of blind patriotism and the power of science to do great good, but also great evil.


* According to Wikipedia: By the end of the war a total of 50,965 tons of pulmonary, lachrymatory, and vesicant agents had bee4n deployed by both sides, including chlorine, phosgene, and the infamous mustard gas. Some 1.3 million casualties were directly caused by chemical warfare agents during the four years of conflict. Of these, an estimated 100,000-260,000 casualties were civilians.

Norman Borlaug, an unsung hero

November 8, 2015

Norman Ernest Borlaug is another unsung scientific hero, who has been called “the father of the Green Revolution” and “The Man Who Saved A Billion Lives“. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 in recognition of his contributions to world peace through increasing food supply.

The Rise and Fall of the Silk Road

June 21, 2015

Here are a couple of videos:


I’ll see you on the dark side of the net

June 21, 2015

I’ve been on the internet for some twenty years, I think. In fact, I have trouble remembering the year in which I started. I still feel a sense of wonder every time I use this incredible tool. However, there is a part of the internet that I have never seen. It is a hidden underworld frequented by people peddling drugs, pornography, hate and extreme political opinions, known as the dark net and it has recently been the subject of a book.

In The Dark Net Jamie Bartlett delves into this unsettling world. The term was popularised by four Microsoft-affiliated researchers in a 2002 paper. In the beginning it was a series of email lists, message boards and networks, the project of a few bored computer scientists and libertarians. They saw the internet as a sphere of freedom away from the prying eyes of the state.

They were helped in this endeavour by the government! The Tor (The Onion Router) browser was invented in the mid-1990s by the U.S. Naval intelligence, who wanted a web browser that would allow their intelligence officers to browse the net without giving themselves away. This software, which you download it from the net, has been taken on by a number of websites who have taken advantage of the privacy it offers to offer services that the state does not want to be offered online.

It was Tor the software that was chosen by Edward Snowden to send information about PRISM to the Washington Post and The Guardian in June 2013. The NSA whistleblower may be in Russia now, but the Russians are working to undermine the system. Last year the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs offered a 3.9 million rouble (approximately $111,000) contract for technology that can identify the users of Tor,

The Silk Road has been the emblematic site of the Dark Net. The site, which took its name from the 4,000-mile network of trade and cultural transmission routes that connected the West and the East for over a thousand years, was created in 2011. It was an online black market, notorious as a platform for selling illegal drugs. I use “was” because the site was taken down by the FBI in 2013. Its founder, Ross William Ulbricht, aka Dread Pirate Roberts, was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole earlier this year.

The Silk Road was, essentially a black market version of eBay or Amazon, where you could buy virtually anything. The comparison with these giants of online sales is very real. The key to its success was the customer service. They had hundreds of different vendors who were kept in check by the user review system. In this type of system the different vendors, who all use pseudonyms, desperately want you to give them five stars out of five. The real money is to be made in repeat business; the best way to generate this is by supplying a high-quality product. This is the reputation economy in action.

The website is the convenient online alternative buying on street corners. In this type of transaction you are taking your life into your hands. You may end up getting stabbed and you have no idea about the purity. The Silk Road was a competitive market, which provided users with some kind of quality assurance over the product they were getting. The price of cocaine was around half that on the street. The real difference, however, was in purity. On the street the purity of can be 40% or as low as 2%, with 25% being the average. On the Silk Road it was generally around 60% but could be as high as 95%.

Ross Ulbricht is an enigmatic character. A university graduate and self-proclaimed libertarian, Ulbricht was living under the name Joshua Terrey in a shared flat until his arrest in 2013. He had told his housemates that he was a currency trader, recently returned from Australia. The FBI alleges that they confiscated 144,000 Bitcoins said to be worth some $150 million from Ulbricht’s computer.

Is Ulbricht a genuine libertarian or are his lofty words about individual liberty a cover for what is a criminal enterprise. There is no doubt that many libertarians feel attracted to the internet, a place where encryption allows you anonymity. As I pointed out at the beginning of this piece, this kind of encrypted activity does appeal to a libertarian philosophy. It is about freedom from censorship, freedom from government. Society can be organised better through markets and individuals than through governments. At the same time, some of the activities on there are clearly criminal and of questionable morality. It’s not just drugs which are available in this anarchic netherworld – it is also a haven for trolls, piracy hackers and child pornography. It was said that you could even hire a hitman.

What was the effect of the government’s shutting down of The Silk Road? As soon as it went down, as is wont to happen in cyberspace, a number of other replica sites turned up in its place. It is like the hydra’s head and there will surely be dozens of similar sites. Readers of this blog will be aware of my opposition to the so-called War on Drugs or the “noble experiment” that was Prohibition. Such repressive policies have generally been ineffective. I see no reason why the results of current policies will be any different.

This quote from Heisenberg2.0, who was a Silk Road competitor, sums it up:

“And this is what Law Enforcement is now parading as a victory? Over two years of investigation, millions of dollars spent and for what? So a couple of armchair programmers can build it again in a few days while in the meantime vendors simply move to other sites.”

The dark net is a paradoxical place. The TOR was seen as a network that would help people in authoritarian countries communicate and not be censored. Indeed it has served a useful function. But you can never control how people will use a technology.  If you try too hard to sabotage these privacy and encryption systems, you are also going to penalise all the people that use it to make the world a better place, not just those with nefarious purposes. This is the difficult trade-off we face. I think the benefits are so large that they outweigh the harms.

If we want democratic campaigners, civil liberties groups and whistleblowers to have protection and privacy, we will have to accept the downsides. But we shouldn’t destroy the whole system simply as a result of some bad behaviour. I am highly suspicious of government intentions. The solution may be worse than problem.

You can hear an interview with Bartlett here.


Watson from Jeopardy to Chef extraordinaire

February 8, 2015

Gordon Ramsay, Ferran Adrià, Jamie Oliver, Paul Bocuse, you’d better watch out – you have a new rival. Chef Watson may be under nine years old, but he is about to publish his first cookery book. This prodigy also won $1m on the American quiz show Jeopardy. I have been following Watson’s career since 2011. I think we can agree that we are in the presence of a unique talent. If you hadn’t realised it already Watson is not human. It is a computer designed by IBM. It is an artificially intelligent computer system capable of answering questions posed in natural language, which was named after IBM’s first CEO Thomas J. Watson, famous for his infamous 1943 prediction that there would be a world market for five computers. This is the blurb from the website:

Watson is a cognitive technology that processes information more like a human than a computer—by understanding natural language, generating hypotheses based on evidence, and learning as it goes. And learn it does. Watson “gets smarter” in three ways: by being taught by its users, by learning from prior interactions, and by being presented with new information. This means organizations can more fully understand and use the data that surrounds them, and use that data to make better decisions.

It was IBM Research manager Charles Lickel who came up with the idea of an IBM computer competing on a popular TV quiz show. At the time of its Jeopardy appearance, Watson had access to 200 million pages of structured and unstructured content consuming four terabytes of disk storage including the full text of Wikipedia. However, it was not connected to the Internet during the game. For each clue, Watson’s three most probable responses were displayed on the television screen. The machine was able to answer questions including puns, synonyms, homonyms, slang and jargon. First it zeroed in on the key words in a clue, then it would comb its enormous data bank of human knowledge for clusters of associations with those words, checking the most popular hits against all the contextual information it has at its disposal. Once it felt “confident” enough it would buzz with the answer. This method proved too much for a great human champion Ken Jennings, who, like Gary Kasparov before him, was overpowered by an IBM artificial intelligence machine. You can see a video of how Watson works:

Winning Jeopardy was just a showcase for the potential for this kind of machine. There are many possible applications in information-intensive fields such as legal research, telecommunications, financial services, and government. One particularly promising area is medicine. Doctors pose a query to the system describing symptoms and other related factors. Watson can then examine available data sources, forming and testing hypotheses before it finally comes up with a list of personalised confidence-scored recommendations, just like it did on Jeopardy. This will never replace humans, but it can surely be an invaluable tool. It is also revolutionising the travel sector. Travelocity reduced the need for live travel agents to handle routine arrangements. But with cognitive computing IBM will be able to harness the power of computing for giving tailored and customised travel advice. WayBlazer, powered by Watson, will allow its customers to ask questions using a natural language interface.

And now we come to Chef Watson. The Guardian featured a piece about Watson’s recipes, which will be published on April 14th this year. Cognitive Cooking with Chef Watson: Recipes for Innovation from IBM & the Institute of Culinary Education will set you back $21.14 from Watson was fed data about foods traditionally enjoyed by humans. The idea was the computer to analyse what we like in order to suggest new suggest new flavour combinations. There is a human element; chefs at the US Institute of Culinary Education then transformed these ingredient lists into recipes. They promise “unusual ingredient combinations that man alone might never imagine”. You can see a video of the project here:

The Guardian journalist looked at five recipes and seemed distinctly underwhelmed. He did give Kenyan brussels sprouts a 4.5/5 but the American kung pao chicken and Plum pancetta cider got 1 and 0 respectively. However, you bet against computers at your peril. Just ask Garry Kasparov!



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