Mini-Stories: Volume 2

Have you ever wondered why flags appear “backward” on one side of a uniform sleeve or military vehicle but look normal on the other? By convention, a worn U.S. flag is supposed to appear with its star field forward, which makes it look reversed on one (the right) side.

moon-flag

This configuration, while counter-intuitive, gives it the appearance of flying in the wind relative to the wearer — the star field is anchored forward (as it would be on a flag pole) while the rest trails behind.

In this second series of mini-stories from 99pi, we are once again tackling listener-submitted questions like these as well as other stories the staff found fascinating but that (for whatever reasons) didn’t warrant a full production. Meanwhile, thanks again to our listeners for submitting ideas — many of our episodes and articles are based on your suggestions!

Byker Wall by Katie Mingle

Producer Katie Mingle was surfing the web for story ideas when she came across something called the Byker Wall — a few clicks later she had stumbled on this old video about the wall on YouTube:

In the video, British writer Beatrix Campbell is walking around outside of the Byker Wall, also known as the Byker Estate, talking about it along the way. This video is why Mingle wanted to do this story, and is worth watching in full.

The Byker Wall actually replaced an entire neighborhood. In 1963 in New Castle, England, a 17,000-resident, working-class neighborhood (also) called Byker was demolished because it was considered a slum. Check out some amazing photos of the old Byker neighborhood here.

byker-wall-aerial

Street by street, the old neighborhood was cleared and a new community was built. Designed by architect Ralf Erskine, the new Byker is a cluster of buildings surrounded by a wall which also contains apartments.

The mile-and-a-half-long wall is meant to be a barrier to highway noise, and enclose the residents inside of a community.

byker-walls

Beatrix Campbell makes this (blush-worthy) observation about the structure Erskine designed:

“For sure it abolishes aggressively phallic architecture, all those grey erections that puncture the skyline. Maybe it’s vulval architecture—it’s round, it goes with the counters of the landscape. It’s an enclosure rather than a disclosure. Full of Nooks and crannies layers and levels and surprises.”

byker-wall-garden
Byker Wall interior by Andrew Curtis (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Erskine did succeed in enclosing the residents of his new community in a vulva-like structure, and he did actually make big efforts to include residents from the old neighborhood in the redesign of the new one. But whether it was a success is arguable. Many residents of the old Byker neighborhood did not end up being housed in the new estate, and in the 1980’s the new Byker community was ridden with crime and vacancies.

694px-tomcollinshouse_1

The Guardian had this to say about the outcome: “For all its faults, Byker Wall was an exemplar of both design and an attempt to involve the community in the changes planned for them by those in power. That it failed in so many ways reveals that it is rarely in the interests of communities to demolish the homes they live in.”

In 2014 the Byker Community Trust started a multi-million dollar revamp of the estate.

Fictitious Entry by Sharif Youssef

Producer Sharif Youssef moved to the Bay Area about a year ago and faced a problem the locals know all too well: ridiculously expensive housing. After some troubles with a landlord, he sought legal advice and along the way he wound up finding a few ideas to pitch as potential episodes about the design of the legal system. One of his favorite finds was a quirky story at the intersection of cartography and copyright law.

Some things are easier to copyright than others. Things like music, graphic design, typefaces and most forms of creative art are relatively straightforward. Theoretically, copyright infringement cases involving those media should be fairly easy to prove and resolve, too. But what about copyrighting things that are inherently not creative — that are supposed to collect, preserve, or disseminate an objective reality or truth (an encyclopedia, say, or a dictionary or map)? What’s to stop Merriam-Webster from copying and pasting the Oxford English Dictionary and slapping their own brand on the cover? They are the same words, so they have to have pretty much identical definitions.

Well, people in the business of making or compiling this type of information have come up with clever ways to help ensure that their work isn’t stolen. And it usually involves deliberately inserting a false “fact” into their work. That way if the same “fact” appears somewhere else, they can tell that a competitor has simply lifted it.

For example, the 1975 edition of the New Columbia Encyclopedia has an entry for Lillian Virginia Mountweazel, a fountain designer turned photographer. She was well known for her depictions of American mailboxes and died at the age of 31 in a fiery explosion while on assignment for Combustibles magazine. Except–Ms. Mountweazel never existed. She was a copyright trap.

A similar thing happened with the New Oxford American Dictionary. They created a new word: esquivalience—n. the willful avoidance of one’s official responsibilities (late 19th cent.: perhaps from French esquiver, “dodge, slink away.”). That was also fake — another trap.

Paper Towns by John Green
Paper Towns by John Green (book cover)

Some copyright traps, however, are also spatial — not just people or words, but physical places. In the 1930s, for instance, cartographers from the General Drafting Company drew up a map of New York State, but, wary of would-be copycats, they created a fictitious town in upstate New York. They named this town Agloe, a mix of the initials of the two higher-ups at the company (Otto G. Lindberg and an assistant, Ernest Alpers). A few years later, Rand McNally (another cartography firm) released their own map of the state, and sure enough: there was Agloe, the very same town in the very same spot on this tiny country road between the towns of Roscoe and Beaverkill. The accused doubled down on their defense of the fake town’s legitimacy and, together, the companies scoped it out.

agloe-general-store

They didn’t find a bustling town with a grid or public transit system, but they did find something: the Agloe General Store and a pair of houses. This once-fictional place had become a reality. People living around the “town” presumably saw it on a map, checked it out, found nothing there and decided to build something under the same name.

The town is gone now and has been for a long time, but there is a sign along the road that reads “Welcome to Agloe! Home of the Agloe General Store.” The store is abandoned and slowly falling apart, but for now, it is still standing. As recently as 2014, the town even showed up on Google Maps (since removed). Agloe is now just a memory — a place created as a lie, brought into reality, and now returned to the ether and wiped from the map. Fittingly, however, Agloe does live on in John Green’s book Paper Towns and the subsequent film of the same name. Both are works of fiction.

Knox Boxes by Kurt Kohlstedt

Years ago, a firefighter and 99pi fan wrote into the show to let Roman know about Knox Boxes (AKA rapid-entry systems). These are in many ways a perfect topic for the show: they are everywhere in cities but go unnoticed unless people know to look for them. As neat as they are, though, they just couldn’t form the basis for a full episode. Instead, after years of sitting idle on the idea shelf, 99pi’s Digital Director Kurt Kohlstedt ended up writing a short piece about them for the website.

knox-box-wall-safe

When firefighters show up at a building during an emergency, the last thing they want to do is risk injury or delay by breaking down doors or busting through windows. Spinning through a collection of building-specific keys could work but would also slow them down. Instead, they pull out one master key that opens a small box on the side of the building (usually near the entrance and around eye level). In turn, that box contains a key to the building, letting them enter quickly.

knox-box-design

Knox makes so many of these boxes that their name has become effectively synonymous with the product (like Kleenex or Band-Aid). While most Knox Boxes work as described above, there are other variants as well — in some cases the master key opens a padlock rather than a box, or a box that contains something other than a key (like a set of keys or a turn-off switch for a building’s gas lines).

various-knox-boxes

And if all of this sounds like a burglar’s Holy Grail, guess again: most of these boxes are tied into a security system. If the emergency is real, the alarms are already going off so nothing changes. But if someone manages to get their hands on a master key and tries using it on an ordinary day they will set off the alarm.

Think you’ve never seen a Knox Box before? Take a look out the window if you live downtown, or watch the next time you walk down the street — these things really are all over the place.

The Snellen Chart by Avery Trufelman

Producer Avery Trufelman is tempted to claim that this is the most iconic poster ever designed, but that would, of course, but hard to quantify. Still, it’s safe to say we have all, at some point, been forced to look at a vision chart. She was originally working on a longer piece about the chart, then, after setting it aside for a while, resurrected it as a shorter piece for this mini-stories episode.

snellen-chart
Snellen Chart by Jeff Dahl (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Everyone knows that pyramid arrangement of black letters on a white background, usually starting with a big E at the top (each line below getting progressively smaller). This is the Snellen chart, named after the Dutch ophthalmologist Herman Snellen, who invented it in 1862.

The cool thing about this piece of graphic design is that it’s actually a tool for testing vision. Patients read off the series of letters on each line. If one gets the majority of the line correct, they move to the next line. Ophthalmologists generally memorize the chart so they can evaluate a patient’s vision without squinting at the chart themselves.

There are various versions of the chart. Most start with E, but some begin with T or A. There are also versions that only feature E but in various configurations (spun or flipped in different directions). These can be helpful for non-English speakers who can just point to indicate the direction the letter faces. Some even have symbols or pictures, designed for children who don’t know their letters yet.

But the Snellen Chart has an obvious problem. When Herman Snellen invented the chart, he knew he wanted big letters at the top and smaller letters at the bottom, but there’s no standard to how many letters are on each line. And because each line has a different number of letters in it, passing each series becomes increasingly difficult. Small differences add up, too. For example: if you get 3 out of 5 right on the 20/20 row, you have 20/20 vision, but 2 out of 5 and you have 20/25.

Visual Acuity chart by the National Eye Institute (CC BY 2.0)
Visual Acuity chart by the National Eye Institute (CC BY 2.0)

One alternative is a chart developed in the 1970s that features exactly five letters on each line. The result looks like and upside-down pyramid, the big letters taking up more space at the top. Correspondingly, the chart has to be much wider and takes up more space, which doesn’t work for every office. Also, this more elaborate chart is harder for doctors to memorize, which could lead to administrative error.

Vision chart present an interesting question about what really makes a design good. On the one hand, you have charts like this newer one, which are standardized and precise but a little harder to use. On the other hand, you have the classic Snellen Chart. It is a less-precise a tool, but its way easier to memorize, which make it a more efficient test for doctors and saves time. Plus: it fits more conveniently on a wall. It is memorable, quick, easy, imprecise, and totally iconic.

Today, you see both versions of vision charts around. Check it out the next time you have your eye test: which design your doctor has opted for? If you get a chance, you might ask them why as well!

Comments (25)

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  1. Olivia

    Very excited that you’re talking about my hometown but… it’s Newcastle, not New Castle!

  2. Aaron

    I’ve loved these mini-story episodes soooo much, partly because of the topics and partly because I get to hear from all of the other (normally) silent members of the 99pi team. Great work, y’all!

  3. Carolyn

    Hi–I started listening to your show a couple years ago after I gave a short talk in Northern England about a landscape park I’d restored–when I finished the organiser’s comment was ‘you sound like Roman Mars’! I thought I’d write with two things about the mini-stories–first, I worked for four years in Newcastle, and discovered among other things that the Geordies love their infrastructure almost as much as their beer and brass bands:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V80Isj9JK1s

    (Byker is even mentioned a couple of times–there’s a station there.)

    Second, cities or developers nowadays may randomly name streets, roads, avenues, boulevards, etc. but each of these terms once had a very specific meaning. I recently read an article tracing the word ‘way’, indicating that its original meaning suggested a steep street–something useful for waggoners to know before they chose their routes.

  4. Rob

    The city where Byker is located is Newcastle (upon Tyne), not New Castle.

    Surely the bigger problem with having a standardised chart for testing eyesight is that the person being tested may become familiar with the sequence of letters? Sometimes in these tests, I have been not sure whether I can really read the bottom row of letters, or whether I am just remembering what they are.

  5. Brian

    The eye chart story is better than the majority of topics you cover – would love to hear the full version.

    1. Michaël

      Totally agree, I normally listen trough a podcast app, this was one of the few times I just had to google something because I wanted to know how it looked.

  6. Jeff Loonin

    The copyright trap is given a sci-fi explanation as well as a practical one in the Doctor Who episode “Face The Raven”. It’s cool when a writer mixes a little bit of truth in with their fiction, no?

  7. Nathan Cross

    I totally love these mini story episodes. They are just so dang fun! I welcome the idea of doing more mini story episodes a few times a year. What about perhaps doing a dedicated short-format podcast devoted to single ministories? Something along the lines of Scientific American’s 60-Second science? Just a thought.

  8. Craig Stevens

    Love these short stories. A couple of points that occurred to me about the eye chart. First, if the Snellen chart is easy for the optometrist to memorize, isn’t another down side that it’s easy for the user to memorize. Kind of self defeating for the user, but it could even inadvertently create inaccurate results over time.

    Second, isn’t another interesting aspect of this chart, the design issues related to the creation of the system for measuring eyesight (e.g. 20/20). Weren’t there other systems that were absolute rather than relative?

    Thanks,

    Craig

  9. Frank

    As a Canadian high school student, we studied the Snellen ratio in (accelerated) physics as part of the study of light, and used patterns of parallel lines (like a spatial frequency chart from old TV). I recall my lab partner (a provincially ranked baseball pitcher) had something like a 9/6 for his dominant eye.

  10. So I have a way to get Katie’s eyechart into a full episode, cover a few different things that we use all the time that are hard to use like the qwerty keyboard.

  11. Emily

    I’m with Avery! The design of charts and equipment for measuring vision and what it actually means to test 20/20 on a vision chart sounds like a fascinating concept to cover. I would be interested in hearing more about it. A majority of people wear vision correcting lenses and interact with optometrists, so it strikes me as something with a wide appeal as well.

  12. Brian

    I found it strange that you felt the need to repeat Beatrix Campbell’s lines, not once but twice. I understand that it’s radio, and that the majority of the audience might not be overly familiar with the Geordie accent, but hers wasn’t particularly strong. You’ve had people from all over the world on the show before, without resorting to this, so to do it with a native English speaker is kind of jarring. I liked the episode, and I think that the mini stories concept is great, but I was really distracted by that choice.

  13. John Sanders

    I used to live near Byker and I agree that it is special. It is often cited as the start of community architecture in Britain. I dont know if that is the case – and neither do i know if two other stories about it are true – that the community consultees did not want tradition but pushed the designers to more inventive design once they saw what was being built in the first phase and what is possible. Newcastle has (or had recently) more architects per head of population than any other city in Britain. I sometimes wonder if this is because the architects who came to work on Byker with Ralph Erskine stayed there. The point is that its a place that is sufficiently interesting for people to make myths and poetic comments about. I admit that Bea Campbell’s attempts at architectural criticism are embarrassing but how good to have people who are not designers talking so generously about recent architecture in this way. If you want to know more there is a very good conservation plan written by Jules Brown at the North East Civic Trust.

  14. Mike

    Loved the section on the Byker Wall. Apparently it was originally intended for a main road to run much closer to it, matching the curve of the Wall, but the road was scrapped. The Wall was built in that shape anyway, then the idea of a road was resurrected, following the design that it has now (i.e. alongside the Wall, but much straighter).
    Also, the streets that you were describing “like Billy Elliot” are known as terraced streets (often shortened to “terraces”) :-)

  15. Nikki Reese

    I was the firefighter who emailed you about the knox box. I had completely forgotten about it! Thanks for the awesome mini story.

  16. The modern Byker Wall is kind of horrendous. The old 1970s (and before) Byker estate version seemed to waste a lot of space but seemed more like a neighborhood and community.

    Urban planning is certainly challenging, I wouldn’t want to be in architect Ralph Erskine shoes.

  17. I loved the story about the Snellen chart, and I think it would be interesting to look at visual acuity charts used in other countries, especially those where the written language doesn’t involve our roman alphabet.

    I’ve lived in Taiwan for a couple of years and had to undergo a complete medical check-up for my student visa, which included an eyesight test. I was surprised to see that the chart used was different from our own; instead of letters, it featured a shape resembling a capital E, but oriented in four different ways. To pass the test, I had to name the direction that the three ‘legs’ of the E were facing, either left, right, top, or bottom. Simple enough, can be applied in all languages, but maybe not as easy to memorize as the Snellen. Anyway, I thought it might interest you – I think there are a few images online.

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