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November 19, 2020

The World's Most Famous Chalk

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From the New York Times:

The History and Mystery of a Cult Favorite

The bright-white sticks drop one by one into the whir and clatter of a weather-worn piece of machinery, where they are stamped with the most celebrated name in chalk: Hagoromo.

The early stages of the process look a lot like food production.

The ingredients in what the company’s owner calls a "recipe" are dumped into a mixer originally designed for bread dough, and what comes out is fed into a kneader originally intended to make udon noodles.

Of the thick grayish mass that emerges, four ingredients are known: calcium carbonate, clay, glue and oyster shells.

The other three are a secret.

In a video posted to YouTube about the chalk, an American fan offers a guess as to one of them: angel tears.

Hagoromo chalk is a cult favorite of elite academics, artists, and others around the world who praise it for its silky feel, vibrant colors, scant dust, and nearly unbreakable quality. 

Mathematicians in particular are prone to waxing poetic about it, and buying it in bulk.

The YouTube video, produced by Great Big Story, has been viewed more than 18 million times.

Despite its renown, Hagoromo is still produced on a relatively small scale, using custom-made equipment, much of it run by two laborers who are identical twins — a throwback in a high-tech era where interactive displays are replacing chalkboards.

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The chalk has survived World War II and, nearly 70 years later, the closing of the Japanese company that originally made it.

The coronavirus pandemic is the latest threat, hurting sales as education and other activities go virtual.

Hagoromo's continued existence is an unlikely story that bridges Japan and South Korea, two countries that have had an uneasy, and often bitter, relationship ever since the war.

The company that produced the chalk for its first eight decades was founded in Nagoya, Japan, in 1932 as Nihon Chalk Seizosho.

After its production building burned down during a World War II air raid, the company was rebuilt and chalk manufacturing resumed in 1947 under the name Hagoromo Bungu.

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[The chalk is fed into a kneader originally intended to make udon noodles.]

Production peaked in 1990 at 90 million sticks.

But sales then steadily declined, eventually reaching half that level over the next two decades amid competition from whiteboards and newer technologies like so-called smartboards.

In 2014, Takayasu Watanabe, the grandson of the company's founder, announced that Hagoromo would halt production, partly because of the industry's declining fortunes and partly because of his own ill health.

He did not ask any of his three daughters to take over the company.

As Mr. Watanabe was preparing to shut it down, he received a visit from Shin Hyeong-seok, who had been importing the chalk to South Korea for nearly 10 years.

Mr. Shin sold the chalk through the company he started, Sejong Mall, named after King Sejong the Great, who in the 15th century created Hangeul, the Korean writing system.

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[Checking the density of the chalk mixture. Some of the ingredients are kept secret.]

Mr. Shin had discovered the chalk years before in Japan while investigating the workings of cram schools.

At the time, he was teaching math part time while pursuing a Ph.D. and his dreams of becoming an architect.

"I went into the teachers' lounge and remember being mesmerized by the fluorescent-colored chalks," he said. "And when I started writing with one, I could not put it down."

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[The mixture is kneaded using a machine originally designed for the production of udon noodles.]

On his trip to see Mr. Watanabe, Mr. Shin presented what he called a "crazy idea."

He, a teacher and importer with no manufacturing experience, would take over production of the chalk in South Korea. Mr. Watanabe laughed.

But Mr. Shin kept pressing.

"My pitch to him was that there are many things in the world that will disappear one day, but the best-quality item should be the last to do so," Mr. Shin said.

Eventually, Mr. Watanabe came around.

He gave his machines to Mr. Shin at practically no cost.

The slightly younger of the two twins, Choi Eui-chun, an ethnic Korean born in Japan, moved to South Korea to work at Mr. Shin’s factory, and the older brother, Choi Eui-haeng, later joined him.

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[The sticks bear the name of the most celebrated brand in chalk: Hagoromo.]

Mr. Watanabe visited three or four times to examine the installation and operation of the machines from his wheelchair. He died in July.

Since 2015, the chalk has been produced in a modest corrugated metal building along a four-lane rural highway 20 miles from the border with North Korea.

Many of the machines in the small factory, like the logo stamper, with its rust-flecked metal and old-style rubber imprinter, look more like museum pieces than cogs in a modern assembly line.

At the end of the assembly line, the chalk is sorted into rows of 12 and then placed by workers into boxes bearing the name Hagoromo Fulltouch Chalk.

"World Best Quality," the boxes proclaim.

Seventy-two white pieces sell for $11.

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Mr. Watanabe was called a traitor by some of his colleagues who accused him of seeking to transfer good technology to South Korea.
The Japanese chalk association feared that Mr. Shin would produce an inferior, cheaper product and export it to Japan, undercutting manufacturers there.

Mr. Shin recalled that Mr. Watanabe had been untroubled by any of this criticism.

He said that Mr. Watanabe eventually came to treat him as a son.

Takako Iwata, the second of Mr. Watanabe’s three daughters, who served as interpreter for Mr. Shin and her father, saw a grander ambition in their bond. "I hope my father's chalk could help relieve Japan-Korea tensions," she said. "That's the hope, at least."

She said she wasn't exactly sure how Hagoromo had become so beloved outside Japan. "I guess people who came to Japan just kept on bringing the chalk back to their home countries," she said. "When my father was still running the company, he did not know about this huge following."

That changed a bit, though, in his company's final months, when he received a flood of orders, including from American professors who hoped to buy supplies large enough to last 10 years or more.

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David Eisenbud, the director of the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute at the University of California, Berkeley, said he had bought enough to last the rest of his life.

Dr. Eisenbud is a key figure in the chalk's popularization in the United States.

He was first introduced to it years ago during a visit to the University of Tokyo. "Everything about the chalk was exquisite," he said. "I thought, 'Chalk is chalk,' but I was wrong."

He later persuaded an acquaintance to import the chalk into the United States. (Mr. Shin now sells it to American buyers through Amazon.)

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[The sticks are sorted before being placed in boxes.]

Yujiro Kawamata, a Japanese mathematician who introduced Hagoromo to Dr. Eisenbud, marveled at the turn of events.

"I happened to tell Eisenbud about the chalk, which was just a tool that was a part of my everyday life, and now the whole world knows about it," Dr. Kawamata said.

November 19, 2020 at 04:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)

The problem with averaging Amazon star ratings


[via xkcd]

November 19, 2020 at 02:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

From L'Oreal — 'Our first line of virtual makeup'

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November 19, 2020 at 12:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

fanboi ❤️: macOS Big Sur


I installed Apple's latest OS last night while I slept and this morning I sat down to see what's new.

Everything seems faster and brighter, for one thing: it's almost like having a newer, better computer.

Lots of tweaks to the visual aspects but so far my favorite changes are to sounds that accompany various actions, namely:

• Startup chord of old, which made me smile and took me back to the 80s

• Enlarge screen icons

• Put stuff in a folder

• Screenshot

• Trash

November 19, 2020 at 10:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (1)

Nintendo Game & Watch: Super Mario Bros.

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From the Verge:

Last Friday Nintendo released... a clock that plays Super Mario Bros.

The new Game & Watch: Super Mario Bros. is an exceptionally cute piece of hardware.

It's modeled after the classic Game & Watch handheld — the precursor to the Game Boy — with a color scheme inspired by the original Japanese Famicom console.

In terms of functionality, the device is incredibly straightforward.

It has three built-in games, most notably the first SMB game.

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There’s also Super Mario Bros. 2, better known in the West as The Lost Levels, a truly evil sequel that remixes the first game with devious features like killer mushrooms.

Rounding out the lineup is Ball, a simple-yet-surprisingly-fun version of the 1980 LCD juggling game, this time starring Mario.

The games are all solid ports, and the screen is nice and bright while the handheld has a great D-pad.

I've found myself picking up the Game & Watch regularly to sneak in a level or two whenever I have a few spare minutes.

The lack of frills is almost nice: I can really focus on just playing the game.

It even has save states, so you can pause the game and return back to the same spot whenever you want.

Outside of the games, the Game & Watch's main function is, well, as a clock.

One of the face buttons reads simply "time," and pushing it will bring back a Super Mario-themed clock with the plumber running and jumping across classic Mushroom Kingdom locales.

The in-game time of day even changes along with the real world.

If I'm being honest, the device is purely a novelty.

There are better and easier ways to both play Super Mario Bros. and check the time.

But the Game & Watch has the right blend of nostalgia and functionality to make it worth checking out for me.

I certainly don't need it, but I want it.

It's similar to Nintendo’s line of miniature consoles, which kicked off a surprisingly long-running trend following the release of the NES Classic way back in 2016.

Here's the thing: only Nintendo would release a kitschy, novelty handheld the same week that its biggest competitors are launching ambitious home consoles.

The situation is indicative of Nintendo as a whole.

While Sony and Microsoft are focused on out-maneuvering each other, Nintendo is in its own world, divorced from concerns like frame rates or 3D audio or 4K graphics.

This isn't always a good thing.

Often, Nintendo's single-minded nature leads to outright failures, like the ahead-of-its-time Wii U.

But right now, the company's distinct focus is a clear positive.

On Thursday, Nintendo revealed that the Switch has been the top-selling console in the US for 23 straight months, and its global lifetime sales are soon to eclipse the Nintendo 3DS.

Meanwhile, Animal Crossing: New Horizons — which only released in March of this year — is already the Switch's second-bestselling game, moving more than 26 million copies.

It's not clear how long this momentum will last.

Maybe one day Nintendo will finally release a 4K Switch, as has long been rumored.

For now, though, the company’s current philosophy — that an underpowered tablet with great games is the best experience for most people — is working.

And it appears that no amount of intimidating next-gen consoles will change that.


November 19, 2020 at 08:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

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