The literal one and only Paul Kafasis, of Rogue Amoeba, One Foot Tsunami, and Just The Tip.
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💧 Fun With Checks

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At this point in time, checks are a very stupid method of payment. For many years now, upon receiving a check, I’ve deposited it by taking a digital picture of it with my smartphone. At a bare minimum, the person sending me a physical paper check could instead have just emailed me a digital picture of the check. Far less ridiculously, though, we could just cut the entire paper part out of this.

Unfortunately, despite the fact that the internet exists, checks remain a relevant tool in the 21st century. Given that, we may as well at least have some fun with them. Fans of my on-an-extremely-long-hiatus podcast “Just The Tip1 may remember that my co-host Amy has some amazing personal checks. We call them pizza checks:

A personal check featuring a cartoon pizza chef in the upper left
It’s just so good.

Despite what her checks might imply, Amy does not own a pizzeria, nor even a chef’s toque.

After seeing this delightful nonsense, I knew I had to step up my own check game. When I needed new checks awhile back, I spent some time scanning through the images which could place in the upper left corner, where the pizza chef is seen above. There were many dull options like a stylized initial (“P”), but I was looking for something with comedic value.

The first thing I considered was this truly ancient computer:

Ancient PC check
The CRT really dates this.

The collegiate logos section offered me the possibility of having “Ball State” checks. At best, though, that was worth a juvenile chuckle:

Ball State Logo check
The logo ruins what’s already a very, very weak joke.

I also contemplated getting something goofy like a monster truck, which would surely appeal to all those 7-year-olds to whom I write checks:

Monster truck check
This is really pretty sweet.

Ultimately, though, I wanted to see if I could come up with something that wasn’t quite so derivative of Amy’s glorious pizza checks. It was in this pursuit that I stumbled upon the “Expressions” section of the check ordering website. Expressions are simple lines of text (and the occasional small image), offering up banal statements like “I ♥ Baseball”:

I love baseball check
I assume the actual physical checks would have higher quality printing than their terrible mockup does.

While I do enjoy baseball, my checks don’t need to advertise that fact. I’m also not interested in having my checks say “God Bless America”, “I’d Rather Be Gardening”, or “Save the Planet”. There were almost 250 different possibilities for an “Expression”, and they were almost uniformly terrible.

However, after much poking around, I stumbled on the “Miscellaneous” section. There, I found the single most ridiculous option I could imagine. As soon as I saw it, I knew I’d found my perfect check. I quickly finished my order, then set up a tent by the mailbox so I could camp out and wait for them to arrive.

Just a few days later, these beauties showed up:

A check that says ‘I need a hug’.

Yes friends, whether I’m filing my taxes with the IRS or paying a plumber, each and every check I send lets the world know that I need a hug.

I don’t know why this option exists. I don’t know who would order it with any degree of sincerity. What I do know is that these preposterous checks have now given me years of enjoyment. The thought of folks being utterly confused upon receiving one of these is a true source of joy each time I write a check. That joy has helped offset, if not eliminate, the annoyance at the fact that I’m still writing checks.


Footnotes:

  1. The show’s not dead until one of us is. ↩︎

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PBones
1231 days ago
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Brighten your day, and your checks!
Boston, MA
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💧 Boston’s Great Molasses Flood

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Most people think of molasses, if they think of it at all, as a slow-moving, syrupy substance. The expression “as slow as molasses in January” dates back to the 1800s, even appearing in the classic film “Gone With the Wind”. But while many know the phrase, few know just how inaccurate it once proved to be. Under the wrong conditions, molasses in January can in fact move at deadly speeds.

1919

In the early part of the 20th century, molasses was used in great quantities for the manufacture of both rum and munitions. In 1915, the Purity Distilling company built a massive five story tank to hold almost 2.5 million gallons of the stuff in Boston’s North End. Less than four years later, that tank was the cause of one of the deadliest disasters in the history of the city.


Molasses
[Photo credit: Badagnani]

Death by molasses sounds like a completely ridiculous way to go, but on January 15th, 1919, it was no laughing matter. Exactly one hundred years ago today, the aforementioned holding tank failed calamitously, releasing a torrent of over 2 million gallons of molasses. A towering tidal wave raced along at up to 35 miles per hour, instantly sweeping up people, animals, and even buildings. Men, women, and children were killed, multiple buildings were destroyed, elevated train tracks were damaged, and horses and dogs died by the dozens.

Buildings destroyed by the flood
Damage wrought by the wave
[Photo credit: Leslie Jones (Probably not that Leslie Jones)]

In the hours after the tank burst, hundreds of people worked in the chaos to try and find survivors. In the end, 21 people died a bizarre, sticky death in Boston due to the molasses flood. Approximately 150 more were injured, many of them grievously. The devastation caused by the tsunami was extreme, and the nature of the substance made matters far worse than if it had simply been water.

Buildings destroyed by the flood
Rescue workers standing in deep molasses
[Photo credit: Leslie Jones (In fact, it’s this Leslie Jones)]

In an article for Scientific American, Ferris Jabr provided a thorough look at the fluid dynamics of a moving wall of molasses:

[A] wave of molasses is even more devastating than a typical tsunami. In 1919 the dense wall of syrup surging from its collapsed tank initially moved fast enough to sweep people up and demolish buildings, only to settle into a more gelatinous state that kept people trapped.

After the accident, the tank’s then-owners U.S. Industrial Alcohol (USIA) ludicrously attempted to avoid the blame. They tried to pin the disaster on “anarchists”, the bogeymen who predate “terrorists” and even “communists” in the American consciousness. USIA claimed Italian radicals had blown up the tank to prevent the molasses from being used to create munitions. Never mind that the tank was improperly engineered in the first place. Never mind too that it had been shoddily constructed in the second place. And certainly, please ignore the fact that when leaks were spotted in the structure the previous year, the company simply painted the tank brown to hide the evidence. No, it was anarchists to blame.

Fortunately, neither the people nor the courts were having any of this. Over 100 lawsuits were filed, and USIA was eventually forced to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in settlements. Better still, this litigation prompted the strengthening of development laws, which surely saved uncountable lives in the century that followed.

2019

I now live just a couple hundred feet from where the ill-fated tank was once located. My building was about two decades old in 1919, but it’s situated up the hill from where the tank stood, and this high ground allowed it to be spared. The area around the tank is now parkland, with a baseball diamond and bocce courts sitting directly on top of the tank’s old footprint. Because the story is poorly-known even in the neighborhood, children and adults alike play in the area, blissfully unaware of the history.

The centennial of the disaster has led to a slight increase in awareness of this story, as has Stephen Puleo’s book “Dark Tide”. The tale has also long been a staple for guides who lead visitors on walking tours of the area. However, despite the ridiculous claims I so often hear them make, it’s not actually possible to “still smell molasses on a hot summer day”. In reality, there are almost no indications that the Great Boston Molasses Flood ever occurred. The tragedy is memorialized in very meager fashion, with this lone plaque put up near where the tank once stood:

A small plaque commerating the 1919 molasses flood
[Photo credit: P. Kafasis]

This marker sits barely two feet off the ground and well below eye level, on the short wall of a park. Seeing it in context really shows how feeble this attempt is:

The plaque, in place
[Photo credit: P. Kafasis]

One local group has earned approval from the city to install a larger and more descriptive sign about the flood. There are also plans afoot to more properly memorialize this catastrophe. On the centennial of the event, however, a paltry marker is all that exists to commemorate one of the strangest accidents in Boston history.

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PBones
1604 days ago
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Today marks the centennial of one of the most bizarre disasters in Boston's history.
Boston, MA
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CVS’s Handmade Flu Shot Signs

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A flu shot is a good way to avoid learning if pumpkin spice cough drops are as nauseating as they sound. On a recent visit to the CVS in Harvard Square1, I came upon the following sign advertising that very service:

Don't gamble on the flu / Let us vaccinate youCVS Store #240

I was struck by the non-corporate nature of this sign, and particularly amused by its arts and crafts style. My hunch was that someone had made it with supplies from the store itself. I could easily picture them grabbing a deck of cards2, a few markers, and a piece of poster board, then putting this all together. A close inspection shows the sign even has a border of Christmas lights on it, though they were not illuminated at the time. While the whole thing was probably assembled in a back office, I’d like to imagine its creator sprawled out in the middle of a less-visited aisle, looking exactly like a middle schooler working on a science fair project.

As I do so many times when something amuses me, I snapped a picture before moving on with both my shopping and my afternoon. The following day, however, I needed something from the CVS near my house (Store #1900). As I entered, I came face to face with another handmade sign:

Don't let the flu knock you out / See your pharmacist todayCVS Store #1900

Where’d the second letter “k” in “knock” go? Its absence gave the effort a delightfully homemade feel. Meanwhile, the boxing theme was likely inspired by a nearby statue of Boston welterweight Tony DeMarco, which sits just across the street from the CVS store in question. Here it is on Google Maps:

CVS and Tony DeMarco StatueLeft Circle: CVS Store #1900; Right Circle: Tony DeMarco Statue
[Photo credit: Google Maps Street View]

Finding two different handmade signs in two CVS stores multiple miles apart seemed like quite a coincidence. I began to suspect something was up, and immediately headed over to the other CVS near my house (Store #4666) to see if they had a similar sign. However, a quick look around that store turned up nothing. I left thinking that perhaps it was mere chance that the first two stores were advertising flu shots in similar fashion.

It took a few days, but that line of reasoning was eventually shot down at the Porter Square CVS (Store #717). While contemplating the rather alarming frequency with which I was finding myself inside CVS stores, I stumbled on a third handmade sign:

Don't get sidelined by the flu / Tackle it with a flu shot todayCVS Store #717

This sign was bizarrely hung at about hip level, and the legibility was not great, but it did contain an impressive amount of detail. Given the end zone markings, we can surmise that “The Flu” is squaring off in some sort of football bowl game against “CVS Pharmacy”. Zooming in on the center of that image enables us to see some rather crooked play.

Caped pharmacist with needle taking down a flu player
In the words of The Tick, that’s dirty pool!

That pharmacist appears to have used a massive needle to take down his opponent. That’s surely a flag for unsportsmanlike conduct, if not grounds for outright ejection. The pharmacist also appears to be wearing a cape, which is an extremely inadvisable choice of uniform for football.

Once I saw this third sign, I was certain I’d find more at other stores. That very day, I visited several additional locations to document more of these signs. I don’t have a lot going on in my life.

Don't get sick as a dog! Get a flu shot todayCVS Store #1022

This sign loses a few points for being hung way at the back of the store, but gets them back because it was in the pharmacy waiting area, where people are sure to have time to notice it. It also earns bonus points for the use of a cute dog.

Don't get caught! Get the shot!CVS Store #25

Speaking of cute, this little flu guy is adorable, and helpfully labeled to boot. I’m not entirely convinced I shouldn’t let him to catch me.

Spread the word, not the fluCVS Store #1012

This sign’s lack of any real art made it a little bland beyond its bright colors. However, the inclusion of the coupon in the bottom right is intriguing. Are there people out there who wouldn’t normally bother to get a flu shot, but will change their minds if offered a $5 off coupon for their CVS purchase of $25 or more? Probably!

Get your flu shot at your favorite spot with your local CVS crewCVS Store #260

CVS Store #260 was easily the smallest I visited, and they had a correspondingly tiny sign. Rather than a large sheet of poster board, this is a single 8.5″x11″ sheet of paper. Despite its cramped quarters, the store does offer a photo printing center which these smiling pharmacists no doubt used. This is a decent quick and dirty effort, but there’s a lot of text, and those hashtags are absolute trash.

As I headed home after a long day of visiting pharmacies, I passed by that second CVS near my house, Store #4666. Coming in through a different entrance, I saw this:

Spread the word, not the fluCVS Store #4666

I don’t know how I missed it the first time through. It’s possible they’d spent extra hours (or even days) working on the details of that needle, and hadn’t yet posted it when I came by on my earlier visit. Either way, it was now obvious that every nearby store had a sign touting flu shots, and that no two of them were alike.

Conclusions

After tracking down these eight signs, I’ve come to two conclusions. First, it seems certain that CVS issued a directive that their stores advertise the availability of flu shots, but chose not to provide any official signage to display. Did this memo suggest making the signs with materials on hand? Was there a budget which would be reimbursed? Or even a time challenge? If we’re lucky, some reader out there will clue us all in to the exact details.

My second conclusion is a bit more prosaic, but still worth noting: There are an absolute assload of CVS stores around Boston. The store numbering system hints at how common CVS locations must be, but many of them blended into the background until I sought them out. Now, it’s clear to me that you can barely go a block without passing a CVS. Each and every one of them is full of people eager to stab you in the arm with a needle. Most of them are even health care professionals who are paid to be there.


Footnotes:

  1. For many years, Harvard Square had two CVS stores within about a hundred yards of one another. There was the good two-story location at 1426 Massachusetts Avenue, and the drastically inferior single-story location at 29 JFK Street. The JFK store had a cramped interior with dingy carpeting, and was best avoided if possible. Of course, it was entirely possible to avoid it, because there was another CVS just up the street. I just said that!

    Yet two years ago, CVS announced plans for another location, at 6 JFK Street. For a brief few weeks in 2015, there were three CVS stores open within spitting distance of one another. The dumpy 29 JFK store closed soon after the 6 JFK location opened, and more recently, the 1426 Mass Ave store closed as well. Harvard Square is now down to a much more reasonable number of CVS stores.

    For more on the comings and goings of retail stores in the greater Boston area, see this post on Store 24. ↩︎

  2. I have a vivid memory of going to a CVS years ago to purchase playing cards and poker chips. I didn’t know quite where I’d find them, but I was certain that I’d seen them in every CVS I’d ever been in, on the end cap of a random aisle. Sure enough, that’s where I found them. ↩︎

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PBones
2029 days ago
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This is one of the strangest things I’ve seen in a corporate chain. Keep an eye out next time you’re at CVS.
Boston, MA
MotherHydra
2026 days ago
I'm walking over to mine later today to check this out.
toddmichaelryan
2029 days ago
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Finally

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It appears that when Apple ships iOS 9.1, iPhone users will have access to a key symbol of human communication. In a beta posted yesterday, Apple greatly expanded the number of supported emoji, including multiple new hand gestures. Of course, there’s one gesture that all have been waiting for, and it looks like we’ll be getting it at long last.

Apple's Middle Finger Emoji
Finally, it will be possible to flip someone off via emoji.

This new middle finger emoji was approved almost 15 months ago, as part of Unicode 7. However, Apple was slow to add it to their devices. After many impatient months, I went so far as to file a bug report with Apple on the matter. A few weeks later, however, that bug report was closed with a disappointed statement of “no plans to address this”. Worse, it soon became clear that Microsoft was taking the lead when it came to expressing one’s self via emoji. When this summer’s iOS 9 betas failed to include this important new glyph, I stewed for hours on end.

Today, however, I can breath a sigh of relief.1 The bird is coming to our emoji. What a time to be alive! Have a look at a full gallery of the new emoji coming in iOS 9.1, which also include a taco, a burrito, an adorable little chipmunk, and much more. Then, sit through a few more weeks of anticipation until we finally get what we deserve!


Footnotes:

  1. As well as rejoice in the fact that I actually got a Radar (bug report) fixed, something fellow developers will know is all too rare. ↩︎

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mattymattmatt
2826 days ago
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Congratulations sir!
PBones
2827 days ago
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I've never been so happy!
Boston, MA
MotherHydra
2826 days ago
Peace among worlds!
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As Little as One-Tenth as Much

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Mother’s Day is this Sunday in the US, and throughout much of the world.1 On the 10th, 11th, many an overpriced greeting card will be given, and many a brunch will be eaten. Most folks will plan to do something for their own mothers. You ought to do something for the mother of your own children as well. But if you’re married, what do you do about the ol’ ol‘ mother-in-law? This seems a thorny problem indeed.

Fortunately, GroupOn is there to help you show just how much you care:

Gifts for Mom-in-Low: $5; Gifts for Mom up to $50

Now we know: As long as you spend at least 10% as much on your mother-in-law as you do on your own mother, your gift-giving will be beyond reproach. You should also aim to spend $5, because that appears to be the magic number. In fact, according to the subject of this email, $5 gifts are “[p]erfect for Mothers-in-Law”.

And just what can you get for $5? Well, who wouldn’t love a five-dollar haircut?

$5 Haircut

And of course, in addition to jewelry and custom photo printed mugs, there’s crap like this:

Notepad; Magazine Subscription
Hey, at least this stuff runs out

This one cracked me up:

Photo on a trivet

It’s sort of awful to put a burning hot casserole dish on a picture of your baby’s face, isn’t it? But if your mother-in-law has only barely-concealed contempt for you, get her a trivet featuring your ugly mug. She’ll get to act out her most violent fantasies, while your own skin survives unscathed, and that’s a classic win-win scenario.

Perhaps the best offer, however, is this one:

Eyebrow Shaping and Waxing

Why tell your mother-in-law that her eyebrows are a goddamned disgusting travesty, and that you can barely stand to look at her? Instead give her a thoughtful deal that leaves the truth politely unspoken, while also allowing her to fix that heinous mess.

The best part?

Eyebrow Shaping and Waxing: Sold Out!

I guess people really do hate their mothers-in-law.


Footnotes:

  1. When I was visiting England back in March, I happened upon this sign:

    Mother's Day March 15th

    My momentary panic was quelled upon realizing those wacky Brits have their own date for Mother’s Day. ↩︎

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PBones
2952 days ago
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Why not buy some terrible gifts for your mother-in-law?
Boston, MA
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Instagram’s Raison D’etre

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Back in 2010, I discussed Twitter’s Raison D’Etre, determining that Twitter existed to provide things like a parody of the mind of the greatest basketball player of all time (which has migrated to a new account here). Facebook, as everyone knows, is a tool for being disgusted by the political whackjobery of people you vaguely know. But what exactly is Instagram for?

Recently, I worked out the answer. Instagram is a social network for talking to hotels about malfunctions in the area of signage. I realize that seems like an awfully specific reason to create a photo-sharing network with over 200 million users, but the evidence is overwhelming.

It all started with this photo, taken in 2012 while staying at the InterContinental on Howard Street in San Francisco:

Boarding Ass
Caption: “4 Star Hotel”

Allow me to publicly state that I was in no way involved in this juvenile bit of vandalism, nor do I know who the feckless, immature perpetrators were. I merely documented their destruction, because come on, that’s funny. The only way to top it would be to remove the “B“ as well and replace it with the “H” from “Telephone”.

To my great amusement/horror, however, shortly after I posted the image I received a Twitter reply from the hotel’s official account:

The InterContinental's reply, reading: 'Thanks for informing us, we’re working on getting this taken care. If there is anything you may need during your stay, tweet us.'
I believe my thought then was “Companies can do that?!”. It was a simpler time.

Following this unexpected success story, later that same week I documented a sign which had been busted for months, if not years:

Hot L Pickwick
Come stay at the Hot L Pickwick

Lamentably, I neglected to geo-tag this photo, and thus it’s likely that the Hot L Pickwick (as it has been known to all and sundry ever since) never saw the post. The sign had been burnt out for ages before I captured it, and it remained burnt out for many moons after.

Things then went quiet for a spell, until two years later. While staying in New York City at the Fairfield Inn, I captured a shot of the New Yorker Hotel. To get this picture, I had to stick my phone out of one of those tiny angled windows, ten stories up. I made sure to geo-tag the location where I almost smashed my phone:

The New Yorker Hotel

However, as there was no issue with the New Yorker’s sign, there was no response from either hotel. I’m pretty much just including this image because it’s a damned good photo. Hey, it’s my website, I’ll do what I want with it!

But back to the matter at hand: figuring out why Instagram was created. The next step on my path to enlightenment came with this shot of the sign for Boston’s famous Union Oyster House:

Union Oyster Hose
You see it’d be a hose, except instead of water, it sprays oysters.

This photo was properly tagged with the Union Oyster House’s location, and while they’re one of America’s oldest restaurants, they’re also hip enough to be on Instagram. Yet the sign has remained broken (and has in fact gotten worse — I believe we’re currently down to NION YSTER HOSE). There can be only one explanation for this, and that is that the Union Oyster House is not a hotel.

The final confirmation as to Instagram’s purpose came just a couple of weeks ago, when I snapped this nighttime pic:

DoubleTree Suits
Their selection of menswear was honestly just awful. It was scattered between hundreds of different rooms across dozens of floors, with no coherent organization.

Not long after I posted the image, I discovered this comment on it, from Doubletree Suites themselves:

A reply: Haha! Nice catch @pbones! We'll let engineering know. #caughtbysurprise

Jackpot! Another broken sign successfully reported to a hotel! It simply cannot be denied that Instagram is providing a platform for informing hotels about signage malfunctions. These results are irrefutable. Further, they indicate that this is a very functional service for the hospitality industry, touting a 67% success rate.

The comments on the last photo didn’t end there though, as my old pal John Moltz offered his congratulations:

WAY TO ENGAGE WITH BRANDS, PAUL

In the immortal words of Dr. Zoidberg, “Hooray! I’m helping!” Now if I could just get Doubletree to hand over some of those warm cookies.

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PBones
3043 days ago
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I figured out what Instagram is for, y'all.
Boston, MA
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MotherHydra
3043 days ago
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Ah, so THAT is what Instagram is for.
Space City, USA
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