August 18, 2005
The Hidden Language of Stamps
Who knew that how you tipped your stamp was once as important as whether you set your cap at someone?
Ian Urbina deconstructed this rather arcane area in a most interesting story which appeared on the front page of this past Monday's New York Times.
Here's the article.
- From Love to Longing to Protest, It's All in the Tilt of the Postage
Every other day, when Janie Bielefeldt writes to her husband, who is deployed in Afghanistan, she places her stamps upside down and diagonally on the letters as a way to say "I miss you."
Susan Haggerty says "I love you" by putting her stamps upside down on letters to her son, stationed in Iraq.
Noma Byng does the same thing with the letters she sends to her husband when he is serving abroad as a way of trying to convey what words cannot.
"You do everything you can to make the letters seem like more than a piece of paper," Mrs. Byng said.
For most people, the front of an envelope is simply a place for addresses and postage, and a crooked stamp indicates little more than that the sender was in a hurry.
But for others, this tiny sliver of real estate is home to a coded language, hidden in plain sight, that has been passed down through the generations for more than a century.
"Another military wife told me that her grandmother used to flip her stamps when writing her husband, who was deployed overseas," said Mrs. Bielefeldt, an ex- marine living in Jacksonville, N.C.
"It's just something you hear about on the base."
A long-distance version of the romantic language of hand-held fans and flowers, the so-called language of stamps emerged in the Victorian era as a discreet method of courtship at a time when parents often censored mail.
And though, like the epistolary tradition itself, the stealthy code has waned with the emergence of technology, it replenishes itself ever so slightly in the face of war, distance, parental disapproval and anything else that might get in the way of people's connection to each other.
"It tends to resurge during war times or whenever else there are large numbers of people separated from their loved ones," said John M. Hotchner, a former president of the American Philatelic Society.
"These are times when there is more letter writing and more emotions poured into those letters."
For some, the stamps represent a valuable tool of affection.
"My husband is good at drawing, so he always puts a tree, which symbolizes the growth of our feelings for each other," said Mrs. Byng, 27, who lives in Oak Harbor, Wash.
"I can't draw, so I just use the stamps to say what I want to say."
And while the struggle to cope with longing is at least as old as language itself, the placement of stamps to send messages had its heyday during the 1890's in England with the popularity of postcards, said Roy Nuhn, a researcher who has studied the history of stamp placement.
Though more affordable and attractive than letters, postcards left text exposed to any nosy intermediary, so people found other ways to get their point across, said Mr. Nuhn, 68, who added that he took interest in the topic while he was serving in the military during the Korean War and noticed other soldiers receiving letters with angled stamps.
But the language has narrowed since the turn of the 20th century, when postcards printed in various countries featured keys that helped explain the message behind each stamp positioning.
Expression was also limited by the mechanization of the postal system, which led some systems to impose rules confining stamps to a single corner of a piece of mail.
The prevalence of e-mail has furthered this decline, except in contexts like prisons, war zones and less-developed countries where electronic communication is less of an option.
"I heard it was a way to say, 'I love you,' and to gesture that your world is upside down without that person," said Michael Palagonia, who put his stamps upside down on the weekly letters he sent to his girlfriend while he was serving in Guinea in the Peace Corps.
When Christine Prosano temporarily broke romantic ties with her husband, who is in prison in upstate New York, she stopped putting her stamps upside down on her letters, placing them sideways instead, as a gesture of friendship, not love.
More than a trivial sideshow, the practice of conveying secret messages from the front of mail long precedes the language of stamps and the use of these codes is part of the reason that we prepay for our postage today.
Before 1840, when postage stamps were first used in England, the recipient of a letter paid for its postage.
And since the cost was often prohibitively expensive, people began placing small marks and symbols on the front of mail.
These codes allowed senders to convey a message to the recipient without obliging the recipient to pay for the formal acceptance of the letter.
The loss of revenue from the use of these codes was one of the reasons that the British government adopted the system of prepaid stamps that is used almost everywhere now.
"It was not unlike the tactic that some people use today with phone calling," Mr. Hotchner said.
"While traveling, people often tell their family back home that they will call at a designated time and let the phone ring only once before hanging up as a way of saying that they have arrived safely, without having to pay for the call."
But for all their scrappiness, these methods of makeshift communication leave room for misunderstanding.
"I think it took several letters before my girlfriend realized that the upside-down stamp wasn't a mistake," said Mr. Palagonia, who now teaches English-as-a-second-language classes at a public school in Phoenix.
This potential for miscommunication was even worse when there was a wider range of possible positions.
According to keys published in the early 20th century, a stamp placed in the upper right corner of an envelope, right side up but tilted slightly to the left, means, "Will you be mine?" in England, "Why don't you answer?" in Germany, "A kiss" in Denmark, "How will we meet?" in Finland, and, "Your antipathy grieves me," in Estonia.
The diversity of images used on the stamps also added to the possible confusion.
Gerald McKiernan, a spokesman for the United States Postal Service, recalled that during the 1960's, turning flag stamps upside down became a popular gesture of protest against the Vietnam War because upside-down flags signify distress.
Mrs. Prosano, whose husband is serving a 20-year prison sentence for armed robbery, said she was confused at first when he began turning his stamps upside down on his letters.
Some of the stamps had American flags on them, and Mrs. Prosano, 37, a travel agent who lives in Brooklyn, said she was initially worried that her husband might be indicating that he was in trouble.
He reassured her that he was fine when they spoke soon thereafter.
"When you are away from someone for so long," she said, "you watch for every little thing."
Google Maps Mania — Mega Mash–Ups
Kevin Maney's column in yesterday's USA Today featured the craze surrounding Google Maps and the company's public release last month of a set of programming interfaces (called APIs) that let anyone take a set of data from one website and combine it with Google Maps to create something entirely new — a mash–up, to use the term popularized in the music world.
As usual, the whole thing is way beyond my capabilities but apparently not of those of most people of average intelligence: Maney wrote that every day a few new Google Maps mash–ups appear and more and more people are hopping aboard the bandwagon.
Yahoo Maps also released similar tools the day after Google but Yahoo's mash–ups don't seem to have caught fire with programmers, who find Google's code more user–friendly.
Maney wrote, "What you're seeing with these map mash–ups is the start of a whole new wave of the Web, in which data from different websites will be able to mix together to create all sorts of new offerings."
I'm reminded of the explosion of widgets that followed Apple's release of Tiger.
Maney pointed us to www.googlemapsmania.blogspot.com as "the best place to find links to most of the map mash-ups."
It's not clear to me whether the word "mash–up" will end up with or without the hyphen after the haze settles.
Maney uses the hyphenated version but the googlemapsmania site doesn't.
Me, I always opt for the simpler approach so I'm going bare from here on out.
A question: is this
Indonesia Is Burning
It happens every summer, like clockwork: poor farmers, illegal loggers and plantation companies in Indonesia set hundreds of fires to clear land.
The trouble is that the smoke spews haze into the atmosphere above other countries as well.
Last week neighboring Malaysia declared "a state of emergency in two coastal cities as haze levels there reached record highs," wrote Wayne Arnold in a story that appeared in Tuesday's New York Times.
He continued, "Low visibility and pollution forced officials to close schools and shut down Malaysia's busiest port [Port Kelang] for a day."
"An acrid haze covered some Indonesian cities and drifted up the northern coast of Borneo and north along the Malay Peninsula into Thailand, where officials issued health warnings."
Malaysia sent a team of 125 firefighters (below)
to Indonesia to aid the Indonesian efforts to put out the fires.
Tell you what: when you read, as I just did in the link above, that "the situation in Thailand on 14 August 2005 [this past Sunday] was characterized by smoke blanketing Southern areas of Thailand including Satun, Phatthalung, Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat, Phuket and Songkhia," well, you have to wince considering how difficult a year it's already been for these areas, many battered by the great tsunami.
For what it's worth, the current fires do not appear to have reached the intensity of those in 1997, which produced haze that covered Southeast Asia, affecting an area larger than the continental United States (below).
The 1997 fires resulted in 40,000 people being hospitalized and caused an estimated $9.3 billion in health costs, lost agricultural production and other economic damage, wrote Arnold.
Sometimes things get tight near electrical outlets and even fractions of an inch make a big difference.
For times like these there's this nicely–designed 180°–swiveling triple wall outlet.
For everything else, there's MasterCard.
Wait a minute — that's not supposed to be in here... what the heck is going on?
Hold on... — OK, I dealt with the research team member who wandered off the reservation there for a moment.
Trust me — it won't happen again.
At least on this shift.
Now where were we?
Oh, yeah, swiveling plug.
Measures 3" x 2.5" x 1.25".
$6.98 for a set of two plugs here. (Item #23891)
BehindTheMedspeak: Is undergoing anesthesia a cover for alien abduction?
Earlier this year the best question ever posed on bookofjoe appeared, from one LLT out of Denver, Colorado.
She asked, "Where does your consciousness go while you're under anesthesia?"
Profound, and I've been thinking about it ever since.
Well, this past Tuesday's New York Times Science section, in its reader correspondence column, contained a letter from one David V. Forrest, M.D., a psychiatrist in New York, which blows the cover off the entire business of alien abduction.
Dr. Forrest spilled the beans.
Here is his letter, in its entirety:
- Those Little Green Men
To the Editor:
Re "Explaining Those Vivid Memories of Martian Kidnapping" (Books, on Health, Aug. 9): I wish to propose another possible contribution to these experiences (in addition to sleep paralysis, a history of being hypnotized and a preoccupation with the paranormal and extraterrestrial).
Could dimly or subconsciously recalled memories of surgery play a part?
One is in a state of altered consciousness (anesthesia), surrounded by green figures (surgeons) whose eyes are more noticeable above their masks, in a high-tech ambience with a round saucerlike bright object above (the O.R. light), and the body's boundaries are being breached by intubation, catheters, intravenous needles and the surgery itself.
Perhaps surgery in childhood would be especially contributory, transformed by the amnesia for childhood.
The autonomic (blood pressure, pulse) response could be a learned bodily memory.
And the surgical aliens are well–meaning.
The puzzle is why we don't see many cases in New York City.
Perhaps it's because we can't see the sky much.
I rest my case.
From the website:
- Put a Magnet on Your Fingertip
Before I start in on how great this Magnetic Finger Glove is, let me start off by saying this isn't to be used up your nose....
Slide the snug finger glove on and use it to start a fastener in an unreachable place.
Drop a fastener down in an area where you can only get your finger in?
Retrieve it easily with this!
One incredible, indispensable tool that deserves to be placed in the top drawer of your tool box.
If you don't use this thing at least a few times a month send it back and I'll refund your money.
I wonder if you could use it as a kind of low–tech metal detector on the beach, instead of one of those machines you see people waving around looking for buried doubloons.
Probably not: magnets aren't much good unless there's iron in the metal, so you'd probably miss most of the Greek bronzes and suchlike.
Chimpanzees are lefthanded
That's the word from Dr. William D. Hopkins of the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta and Elizabeth V. Lonsdorf of the Lincoln Park Zoo and the University of Chicago.
Their new study, just published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, demonstrates conclusively that when it comes to one crucial task — hunting termites with a stick — two out of three chimpanzees living in Gombe National Park in Tanzania use their left hand.
But wait: there's more.
Other studies of chimp populations in other parts of Africa have shown that for cracking nuts, chimpanzees show signs of right–handed dominance.
Dr. Hopkins said, in Tuesday's New York Times Science section article by Henry Fountain on the new findings, that "the difference might be due to the demands of the two tasks: termite fishing requires fine motor control with the fingers, while nut cracking is more of a whole–hand activity."
I find this new work quite troubling, on a personal level.
You see, I use my left hand for fine motor tasks but use my right for those requiring less dexterity and more power.
The dividing line is racket sports: I play ping–pong left–handed but tennis right–handed.
I have yet to meet another person — or chimpanzee — with this particular division of tasks.
So you can see why there is unease here at bookofjoe World Headquarters.
I have always had a shadow of doubt regarding my origin and the shadow has just lengthened.
Illuminated Neck Reader — Is this the bedtime reading light I've been searching for?
OK, OK, so it looks dorky but if it works who cares?
After the exhausting treatment of this subject last Sunday I thought I'd be done with this topic for at least a week but no: in yesterday's collection of mail order catalogs came this new take on the problem of illuminating one's reading material.
Now, this device is complicated by the fact that it features a 2X Fresnel lens to magnify your book or whatever; I'm just looking for a little light, the rest I can do on my own.
See, if we're gonna read at night then the light has to come from somewhere: it's not gonna be beaming out of our pupils,
much as we'd like that to be the case.
Clamp it to the book or your head or ear but there's got to be a place to put the light.
The Neck Reader is interesting because it puts the light in a place I haven't yet seen it: around your neck.
I think this is a good initial effort at "thinking outside the [light]box."