Chewing gum, barcodes and conspiracies

It’s 26 June, and it was on this day 39 years ago that an inconspicuous little pack of Wrigley’s chewing gum hit the spotlight, to become perhaps the most famous packet of chewing gum in modern history – it became the first barcoded product to be scanned in a supermarket, fundamentally changing the way we shop.

A testbed barcode system was installed in a supermarket in Troy, Ohio (near the factory producing the barcode scanning equipment), and at 8:01 on the morning of 26 June 1974, an unsuspecting shopper, Clyde Dawson, presented a packet of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit gum to the supermarket teller, Sharon Buchanan, who successfully scanned the product’s Universal Product Code (UPC). Sadly for Dawson, he never got to eat his chewing gum – the pack of gum, together with its receipt, is now on display in the Smithsonian Institute, representing the first commercial appearance of the UPC. (I can only assume he was well compensated for this special little item.)

A barcoded pack of chewing gum - it may be a common sight today, but in 1974 it was special enough to end up in the Smithsonian Institute. (© All Rights Reserved)
A barcoded pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit chewing gum – it may be a common sight today, but in 1974 it was special enough to end up in the Smithsonian Institute.
(© All Rights Reserved)

The introduction of barcode scanning at the supermarket checkout introduced a number of benefits – it simplified the job of the teller, who no longer had to key in the price of each item, it reduced human input errors, and it captured a lot more sales information for the shop, thus allowing them to to achieve greater responsiveness to customer needs and buying trends. Barcodes on products have also significantly reduced the price tag swapping technique of shoplifting.

Shops in the US converted consistently over time, and by the early 80’s, 8000 stores per year were adopting the UPC. Adoption soon spread internationally, causing a fair amount of consternation among conspiracy theorists, who considered the barcode a visible and intrusive example of ‘big brother’ watching and monitoring their personal shopping habits.

From the retail sector the use of barcodes has spread to a wide range of application domains – healthcare centres and hospitals use it for patient identification and medication management. Postal services use it to track and trace mail. It is used as part of ticketing at events and transportation services. Barcodes have even appeared in art, for example Scott Blake’s Barcode Jesus.

It is certainly impossible to imagine modern life without the familiar little striped strip that appears on almost everything we deal with in our daily life, except perhaps for fresh produce. But times change, and slowly but surely so do the barcodes we see around us. These days more and more products are appearing carrying so-called Quick Response (QR) codes – probably the most popular 2D (or matrix) barcode – which can represent more data per unit area.

But that, as they say in the classics, is a story for another day…

Celebrating a year of daily blog-posts!

It was today exactly one year ago, or perhaps I should say 365 days ago, in blog terms, that I made a blog post about the inaugural Fascination of Plants Day.

This rather inconspicuous event in the blogging universe, on the arbitrary date of 18 May 2012, was the kick-off of an idea I had to do a daily blog featuring some interesting fact (preferably with a science angle) related to the specific day, and illustrating it with one of my own photos. And here we are – 365 posts later, back to the 18th of May. 🙂

Jumping for joy at having achieved my goal of a year of daily science and photography blog-posts  (© All Rights Reserved)
Jumping for joy at having achieved my goal of a year of daily science and photography blog-posts
(© All Rights Reserved)

I don’t think I quite realised what I let myself in for – trying to find something interesting for each day proved quite a challenge, especially given the extra requirement of illustrating it with an original photograph of my own. This immediately took things like space travel, innovations at the atomic level, heart transplants etc out of the equation, sometimes leaving me blogging about some rather absurd esoteric topics like Yellow Pig Day and World Coconut Day. I discovered many interesting facts and stories I never knew – the story of Farkas Bolyai and his mathematical obsessions, Stanley Miller’s primordial soup experiments, how bubble wrap was invented, and the fact that there’s even such a thing as World Toilet Day, to name but a few.

I even learned how to make a needle float on water.

My original aim was to keep up the daily blog for a year. With that done, the question is whereto now. While I’m reluctant to commit to another year of the same level of blogging dedication, I have to admit I’ve been enjoying where the blog took me, so I don’t quite feel like calling it a day.

What I’ve decided for the moment (I may change my mind, who knows) is to commit to at least a weekly post on a subject related to the day (or week – there appears to be more than enough ‘International Week of…’ initiatives out there worth sharing a blog post about).

In between I may mix things up a bit with more blog posts related to what I do in real life, that is, being a science photographer. Posts about interesting events and developments in the fields of photography, visual science communication, science art collaborations, and more. Even some personal ramblings, who knows.

My sincere thanks to everyone following this blog, to all the likes, comments and support over the past year. I hope you will continue to share my journey.

Cheers to the next year.

Girls in ICT Day, promoting ICT as an equal opportunity career

The fourth Thursday in April (falling on the 25th this year) has been designated Girls in ICT Day by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), in response to the global decline in the number of schoolgirls opting to pursue technology-related careers.

ICT is consistently ranked among the top 20 tech careers in terms of pay and long term prospects, and as one of the more stable and robust sectors, there is a strong, and by all indications ongoing, demand for young ICT professionals entering the market. It is also a domain boasting a good gender balance, and the ITU hope to use these facts, combined with its activities on Girls in ICT Day, to reverse the trend witnessed in other tech industries, and to grow the number of girls and women pursuing careers in the ICT sector.

Girls in ICT Day aims to show that ICT is not boring, geeky or uncreative. (© All Rights Reserved)
Girls in ICT Day aims to show that ICT is not boring, geeky or uncreative.
(© All Rights Reserved)

In 2012, Girls in ICT Day involved approximately 1,300 events held by governments, the private sector and NGOs in 87 countries, and it is estimated that these events reached over 30,000 school-age girls. In 2013 the aim is to grow participation to 100 countries, for even greater impact. In the social media space, events related to the day are linked through the #girlsdigital hashtag. One of the global online initiatives is the ITU-hosted Girls in ICT Portal, a consolidated source of information and resources on ICT opportunities for girls.

Perhaps the sentiment of the day is worded best on the Tech Needs Girls website: “Word’s out that tech has an image problem among girls who think it might be boring, geeky, uncreative and not really helping anyone! (…) So we’re here to encourage girls to step up to technology and not leave all the fun to boys in shaping our futures…”

The day the microscope got it’s name


On this day, 13 April, back in 1625, Giovanni Faber (also known as Johannes Faber) first suggested the word ‘microscope’ for an enlargement viewing device developed by Galileo Galilei in order to see tiny objects that are too small for the naked eye (Galilei himself called it an ‘occhiolino’ or ‘little eye’). Faber used the term in a letter to Federigo Cesi, founder of the Accademia dei Lincei (Academy of the Lynx) in Italy, one of the earliest academies of science.

Once the term ‘microscope’ became accepted, this also resulted in the coining of the term ‘microscopy’ for the science of investigating tiny objects through a microscope. The term ‘microscopic’ is used for something that is too small to see unless viewed through a microscope.

Microscopes - impossible to imagine science without them. (© All Rights Reserved)
Microscopes – impossible to imagine science without them.
(© All Rights Reserved)

The microscope is another of those devices that is synonymous with science – it is impossible to imagine a scientific lab, and science in general, without microscopes. From the first optical microscopes (still in use), further developments and technological innovations led to the development of more powerful microscopes including the electron microscope (using electrons rather than light to generate an image) and scanning probe microscopes such as the atomic force microscope (AFM).

The AFM is an extremely high resolution device that can achieve a resolution of the order of fractions of a nanometer. The increased resolution achieved by this device opened up amazing new research possibilities in the nanosciences. To acknowledge this, the developers of the AFM, Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer of IBM Research, were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1986.

While only a very select few of us will ever have the opportunity to see one of these incredible pieces of scientific equipment, let alone experience using it, I am sure many out there remember the magical world that opened up when you got your first hobby microscope. I certainly remember the wonder of first getting to use a little microscope handed down to me by my dad – it was old and worn and not fancy at all, but man, was it amazing to look at anything and everything, from a fly’s wing to a drop of blood.

Did you have a microscope when you grew up?

The Internet of Things and the future of data capturing

Today, 9 April 2013, is Internet of Things Day.

The Internet of Things? Yep, I had no idea what it was either, until I did a bit of searching and reading on the subject. It is a rather complex concept, first introduced during a talk in 1999 by British technology pioneer Kevin Ashton. 10 years later in 2009, Ashton wrote a note in RFID Journal explaining in more detail “That ‘Internet of Things’ Thing”, as he called it.

The internet of things is about measuring, monitoring and recording of data by computers and other enabled devices (often everyday appliances around us), without human assistance or intervention.(© All Rights Reserved)
The internet of things is about measuring, monitoring and recording of data by computers and other enabled devices (often everyday appliances around us), without human assistance or intervention.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Basically, his idea is that the vast majority of the information contained in the Internet, as we know it, has been captured and created by human beings, “by typing, pressing a record button, taking a digital picture or scanning a bar code”. People, however, have limited time, and are in many circumstances not that good (in terms of attention, accuracy etc) at capturing data anyway. By getting computers and other machines. without human intervention, to gather and capture information about ‘things’, we would gain access to unthinkably vast sets of information. This will allow us to track and count everything – we will know the status of things, when they need to be replaced, repaired or recalled; whether they’re fresh or past their useful date.

Ashton’s vision is to “empower computers with their own means of gathering information, so they can see, hear and smell the world for themselves, in all its random glory. RFID and sensor technology enable computers to observe, identify and understand the world—without the limitations of human-entered data.”

Various alternative definitions have been suggested for the Internet of Things (IoT), but as I understand it, in a nutshell, it is a connected network of computers and other smart devices measuring and capturing information about any number of ‘things’ out there. The data collected by this IoT is vast and powerful, and to a large extent still untapped. Closely related concepts include ‘ambient intelligence’ and ‘ubiquitous computing’.

The range of applications of the IoT is massive, including waste management, intelligent shopping, emergency response, home automation and urban planning, to name a few.

Internet of Things Day exists to create increased awareness about the concept, and how it may impact on life as we know it. While I am pretty sure my understanding is still on the dangerous side of rudimentary, I have to admit I find it exciting, scary and just plain daunting in more or less equal measures.

So here’s to an interesting and exciting Internet of Things Day to you and all the machines and devices around you…

Celebrating Einstein’s birthday on Pi Day

Besides today being World Kidney Day, which I incorrectly listed on the blog for yesterday, the 14th of March is also the celebration of Pi Day, commemorating the mathematical constant π (pi), which, to two decimal points, equals 3.14.

Enjoying 3.14 pies on Pi Day.(© All Rights Reserved)
Enjoying 3.14 pies on Pi Day.
(© All Rights Reserved)

OK, we’ve already celebrated Pi Approximation Day on the 22nd of July (22/7 is also used to approximate π), but surely this amazing number deserves another mention.

So bake yourself 3.14 pies and share in the celebrations!

Making today extra special, we also celebrate the birthday of Albert Einstein (14 March 1879 – 18 April 1955), the greatest scientist of the 20th century. What makes Einstein such an endearing figure is that, besides his numerous groundbreaking contributions to science (thermodynamics, relativity, quantum theory, wave-particle duality, statistics, cosmology, nuclear physics and much more), he has also made deeply profound contributions to secular subjects as diverse as war and peace, religion, human rights, economics and government.

The ideas and opinions of the great Albert Einstein - a continuous source of insight and inspiration. (© All Rights Reserved)
The ideas and opinions of the great Albert Einstein – a continuous source of insight and inspiration.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Many volumes have been written about the great man, so rather than trying (and no doubt failing) to adequately capture his contributions in a single blog post, I will rather leave you with one of his many, many wonderful quotes:

“Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow.
The important thing is not to stop questioning.”

Radio: the power to inform

It’s 13 February, which means today is World Radio Day.  This day, proclaimed by UNESCO, is a celebration of radio as a truly non-discriminatory information and communication medium.

As explained in the World Radio Day 2013 press release, the day aims to “improve international cooperation between broadcasters; and to encourage major networks and community radio alike to promote access to information and freedom of expression over the airwaves.”

No matter how old the radio, you can still access the latest news, views and information.(© All Rights Reserved)
No matter how old the radio, you can still access the latest news, views and information.
(© All Rights Reserved)

As the world continues to evolve into multiple levels of digital connectedness, radio remains the medium that reaches the widest audience worldwide. From commercial FM stations to shortwave community radio, the medium continues to entertain and inform a diverse audience, across all ages, genders and cultures.

Despite changes and developments in broadcasting technology (from shortwave and medium wave to frequency modulation to digital broadcasting), the interface to its audience has remained largely unchanged, making it the simplest, most affordable and most widely accessible communication medium. The fact that radio can carry its message without the need for electrical connectivity at the receiving end makes it particularly suited to disseminate information in conflict situations and during natural disasters.

While traditional broadcasting remains at the core of radio, digital technology has opened up new opportunities – online radio stations are decreasing the cost of broadcasting, resulting in more citizen journalists and community groups using the medium to give voice to their unique messages.

It is this far-reaching power of radio that UNESCO wants to communicate on World Radio Day. To quote Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO in her message on the occasion of World Radio Day: “UNESCO is determined to make full use of community radio to address poverty and social exclusion at the local level and to empower marginalized rural groups, young people and women. Radio is the key platform for education and for protecting local cultures and languages. It is also a powerful way to amplify the voices of young people around the world on issues that affect their lives. We must bolster their skills and give them opportunities to engage fully with radio.”

Douglas Engelbart and the evolution of the computer mouse

We’re back to computers today, as we celebrate the birthday of Douglas Engelbart (born 30 Jan 1925), the American electrical engineer and human-computer interface specialist who developed the first practically useable prototype of the computer mouse.

The computer mouse has become such a ubiquitous part of a home computer setup that its quite difficult to think back to the time when computers didn’t come stock standard with a mouse. Of course early command-line computers had no real need for a mouse, given that they didn’t have a graphical user interface, and there was no need for a device to select different objects on the screen.

The classic Apple mouse - a masterpiece of user-friendly industrial design.(© All Rights Reserved)
The classic Apple mouse – a masterpiece of user-friendly industrial design.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Engelbart’s computer interfacing device, that he developed with his colleague Bill English at the Stanford Research Institute, basically consisted of a handheld ‘box’ with two wheels protruding at the bottom, pointed perpendicular to each other so that, when the device was moved along a flat surface, the rotation of the wheels translated into motion along the horisontal and vertical axes on the screen. The device became referred to as a mouse because of its size and because the electric cable running out behind the device resembled a mouse’s tail.

Even though Engelbart patented his computer mouse (on Nov 17, 1970), this was a case where the invention was so far ahead of its time that the patent ran out before the device found widespread application in personal computers. Hence he never received any royalties for his groundbreaking invention.

The mouse was actually only one of several different devices that Engelbart experimented with to enable humans to easier interact with computers, including a joystick-type device, as well as head-mounted devices attached to the chin or nose. Personally I am quite relieved that the hand-held mouse won out – imagine if we all sat around staring at our computer screens with pointing devices attached to our noses. Then again, we may not have thought it funny – if you think how absurd ear-mounted bluetooth mobile phone headsets look (a personal pet-hate of mine!), perhaps a nose-mounted computer pointer wouldn’t have been that odd…

Of course by today the computer mouse has become a complex, highly sophisticated device, with variants ranging from multi-functional gaming mice that look like something out of a science fiction fantasy, to Apple’s classic smooth and simple design masterpieces.

And all this thanks to Doug Engelbart’s visionary work more than 40 years ago.

Wikipedia, collaborative, free and up to date since 2001

15 January; this is the date in 2001 when Wikipedia was launched – the largest and most popular general reference work on the Internet, and one of those amazing phenomena of the online era that have fundamentally changed the way we interact with information.

Searching Wikipedia - a daily activity for millions of Internet users.(© All Rights Reserved)
Searching Wikipedia – a daily activity for millions of Internet users.
(© All Rights Reserved)

The creators of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger, came up with the name as a combination of a ‘wiki’ (a type of collaborative website) and ‘encyclopedia’ – thus succintly describing the way the site operates. Essentially a very simple concept, Wikipedia is described as “a collaboratively edited, multilingual, free Internet encyclopedia supported by the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation.” From its humble beginnings a little more than a decade ago, Wikipedia has grown to an online encyclopedia containing 24 million articles in 285 languages (including over 4.1 million in the English Wikipedia) – all created collaboratively by about 100 000 contributors from around the world.

And popular it is – with over 35 million readers, and more than 2.5 billion page views per month from the US alone.

While the open, collaborative model behind Wikipedia holds many advantages – range of content, speed of update, etc – the non-expert, non-academic profile of much of the contributor base has raised some criticism, including questions about the accuracy and quality of some of its the content. While these concerns are valid, and there is no doubt some questionable content on Wikipedia, the way the information is presented tends to be very open, and non-verified information are usually flagged as such. As long as you realise that you are, in fact, dealing with a non-verified source, the level of information available via the platform really is staggering. And the self-regulatory action of the Wikipedia community does tend to lead to content that is, in the majority of cases, surprisingly well verified by experts in the relevant fields.

In fact, a 2005 investigation in Nature magazine showed that most of the content in Wikipedia come very close to the level of accuracy of an accepted reference work such as Encyclopædia Britannica.

So, whether or not you believe everything you read on Wikipedia, there’s no denying that it is an incredibly broad and up-to-date source of information on just about any topic you can imagine.  And that’s impressive, no matter how you look at it.