Thursday, May 21, 2015

Podcast: 99% Invisible


99% Invisible is a neat little podcast by Roman Mars (cool name, eh?). Here are some recent learnings lifted pretty much directly from the 99% Invisible episode guide:

Episode 164: The Post-Billiards Age (ivory to plastics)
  • A hundred years ago, there were 830 pool halls in the city of Chicago. Today, there are ten.
  • Billiard balls were first made from ivory, with just 3-5 balls produced from each tusk.
  • Records from the ivory trade sometimes refer to the top grade as “billiard ball ivory.”
  • This was an expensive business and a prize was offered to the person who could invent a suitable substitute material. 
  • Culluloid was a contender - it proved useful for other uses but didn't cut the muster for billiard balls. Inspired by celluloid, Leo Baekeland, in 1907, came up with a new kind of petroleum-based plastic. He named it Bakelite, after himself. And Bakelite plastic was perfect for billiard balls.
Episode 163: The Gruen Effect  (shopping malls)
  • Victor Gruen argued that good design equaled good profits. The more beautiful the displays and surroundings, the longer consumers are will want to stay in a shop. The more time a shoppers spend in a store, the more they will spend.
  • Gruen presented his a solution for America: The Shopping Mall.
  • Malls are suburban pilgrimage sites, which, of course, Americans had to drive to. Gruen knew that Americans loved to drive. So the mall was his compromise: shoppers had to walk once inside, but they could drive over. For better or for worse, Gruen was right. Americans loved driving to his malls. He got commissions for them all over the country
    Over time, Gruen saw that in erecting these malls, he was draining life from the actual cities.
  • About ten years after his return to Vienna, Gruen gave a speech in which he declared, “I refuse to pay alimony for these bastard developments.” Victor Gruen, the mall maker, became the foremost mall critic.
Episode 161: Show of Force (the ghost army)
  • WWII. US utilises a 'deception unit', a unit that would appear to the enemy as a large armored division with tanks, trucks, artillery, and thousands of soldiers. But this unit would actually be equipped only with fake tanks, fake trucks, fake artillery and manned by just a handful of soldiers.
  • After the war, the unit was nick-named the 'ghost army'.
  • An inflatable tank might look real enough on the ground from a distance, but aerial reconnaissance could reveal a conspicuous lack of tank tracks. So the Ghost Army would use a bulldozer to make fake tracks around the fake tanks.
  • There was one cardinal rule about working with inflatables: never carry one across a road, or in any other place where you could be seen. Obviously, two men carrying a 40-ton tank would be a dead giveaway.
  • On the battlefield, the Ghost Army also did “sonic deception.” The sonic deception unit would record the sounds of troops amassing in tanks and trucks and then be able to play those sounds back over loud speakers.
  • The Ghost Army carried out twenty-one deception missions between June 1944 and March 1945—nearly the entire time the U.S. Army was operating in Europe.
Episode 160: Perfect Security (Bramah, Chubb and Yale)
  • 1770s - Joseph Bramah enters English locksmithing scene. “Bramah safety lock” had layers of complexity in between the key and the deadbolt which Bramah believed made it 100% theft-proof.
  • As soon as he had a padlock version of this lock that he felt confident in, he put it in the window of his London storefront, and painted on it a challenge, prize of 200 guineas to whoever could open it.
  • The British government wanted to up the game; they wanted a lock that wouldn’t just be unbreakable, but would also alert the owner if someone tried to open it. Another locksmith named Jeremiah Chubb met that challenge with his Chubb detector lock. The government awarded Chubb £100 for his innovation.
  • For years, the names Chubb and Bramah were all but interchangeable with “perfect security”—but only until the Lock Controversy of 1851.
  • A. C. Hobbs, an American locksmith. Back in the states, Hobbs had made a name for himself by showing bank managers that their locks could be easily picked, and convincing them to buy one of his. Hobbs was selling lots of locks this way. > He cracks both the Chubb and then the Bramah, and 'perfect security' is over forever.
  • Yale invents and mass produces the “pin and tumbler” lock - it became the world’s most common lock, and they are still made today.  It’s probably the lock you have on your door. 
  • The pin and tumbler lock is fairly easy to pick for someone who knows what they’re doing. But despite what movies would have you believe, it can’t usually be done with just a pick, or a paperclip, or a hairpin. There’s a second tool you’ll need: an L-shaped piece of metal called a tension wrench.
  • The lock on your front door is probably pretty easy to pick, but using a crowbar or going through a window would probably also suffice. It’s not just locks that keep us safe—it’s the existing social order. Today, locks have become a social construct as much as they are a mechanical construct.
Episode 157: Devil’s Rope (barbed wire)
  • Mid-1800s: a notion of manifest destiny swept the nation - The U.S. government wanted farmers to move west, because farmers, unlike cattlemen, would establish communities and build permanent settlements. In 1862, President Lincoln signed the Homestead Act, offering 160 acres of free land to anyone who settled and farmed it for five years. > problem: fencing!
  • Different types of fencing tried and failed. It was holding back expansion and settlement. But then came barbed wire. 
  • Glidden’s barbed-wire design took off, and by 1876, his company was producing nearly three million pounds of barbed wire annually.
  •  In World War I, barbed wire would become infamous in trench warfare; in World War II, barbed wire became the emblem of concentration camps.
  • Barbed wire’s history has mostly been about control, possession and separation but there is one instance where barbed wire was used not to separate us, but to connect us.
  • Right around the same time that barbed wire was invented, Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. At first, telephone companies were laying telephone wire in cities, but they weren’t interested in the rural market. Still, farmers also needed phones, which meant that they needed a network of wires to connect the farms. Barbed wire fences could serve this purpose. The barbed wire couldn’t transmit a signal quite as clearly as a nice insulated copper wire, but for many years, they did the trick.
  • In WWII electrified barbed wire was used in prisoner of war camps. Some soldiers would commit suicide by 'embracing the wire'.


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