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Friday, April 13, 2018

What does lorem ipsum mean?

“I was setting up a newsletter on the computer, and all the examples were in a foreign language! Why?”

After asking for more details, we found that the language in question was lorem ipsum, not a language at all.

Typically beginning “lorem ipsum dolor sit amet consectetueur,” it’s a pseudo-Latin nonsense phrase mostly lifted from a treatise on ethics written by Cicero in 45 B.C. According to the Microsoft support website, the original phrase by Cicero is “Neque porro quisquam est qui dolorem ipsum quia dolor sit amet, consectetur, adipisci velit,” which translates as "There is no one who loves pain itself, who seeks after it and wants to have it, simply because it is pain."

Lorem ipsum, however, has had letters added and removed to the point where it’s no longer proper, meaningful Latin. For example, according to, a webpage for generating lorem ipsum and other text, sometimes the letters K, W, and Z are added randomly, just to give an idea of what they would look like.

Because it’s meaningless, lorem ipsum is often used as filler text in design, such as in our patron’s newsletter example. It’s supposed to give an idea of what the finished product will look like without distracting the eye.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Why do I have to tell the computer that I'm not a robot?

“Sometimes when I’m online, a website will ask me to type in a bunch of weird letters and numbers, or pick out all the pictures that have a car or a street sign, or just click a box that says ‘I’m not a robot’ before it lets me go any further. Why does this happen?”

These are a few different examples of a CAPTCHA, an acronym that stands for “completely automated public Turing test to tell computers and humans apart.” According to Architects of the Information Age, edited by Robert Curley, the CAPTCHA was developed in 2000 by computer scientists at Carnegie Mellon University. Yahoo requested their help keeping bots (which are automated computer programs) out of their chat rooms. The bots were collecting personal information and filling the rooms with spam. However, the programs couldn’t recognize distorted text. By asking users to identify twisted or crossed-out letters before they could enter the chat, Yahoo ensured that only people, not bots, could enter their chat rooms.  

The official CAPTCHA website gives us a few more examples of what it does. It can prevent bots from sending spam comments, stuffing the ballot boxes of online polls, and slowing down email services by signing up for thousands of accounts at a time. If you forget your email password and have to make a few guesses, the site may ask you to solve a CAPTCHA. This protects your account by keeping bots from running through every possible password until they get in.

There are ways to circumvent CAPTCHA. Artificial intelligence has gotten good at solving the ones that are only text, which explains why newer CAPTCHAs can involve images. There are also CAPTCHA solving services, where workers are paid approximately fifty cents to a dollar for every thousand CAPTCHAs they solve.

Friday, January 12, 2018

How do frogs survive the winter?

One of our patrons, who has in the past been concerned about how deer and birds stay warm, was recently concerned about how the tree frogs and peepers around their house make it through the winter. We found the answer in Frogs: A Chorus of Colors by John L. Behler and Deborah A. Behler and a Scietific American article helpfully titled “How do frogs survive winter? Why don’tthey freeze to death?” that cites Rick Emmer, a former zookeeper at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo.

While aquatic frogs will hibernate in the water, resting on the mud, and toads will burrow beneath the frost line, peepers can’t dig as well. They’ll find cracks and crevices to nestle down in, or find old leaves to hide under. When the weather gets cold, though, these can’t protect them from freezing. Fortunately, some frogs have found a way to adapt. As temperatures gradually dip, their bodies become saturated with glucose, which acts as an antifreeze protecting their vital organs. The rest of their bodies freeze, their hearts stop beating, and they stop breathing. Once the weather is warm again, they thaw and return to life.

Friday, December 22, 2017

What's Christmas like in Sweden?

One of the library’s book clubs was reading A Man Called Ove by Swedish author Fredrick Backman. Since it’s close to the holiday season, they were wondering how Ove and the other characters would be celebrating. We found the answer on Sweden’s official tourism website and in The Folklore of World Holidays by Margaret Read MacDonald, The World Encyclopedia of Christmas by Gerry Bowler, the Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year’s Celebrations by Tanya Gulevich, and a tongue-in-cheek article about Swedish Christmas traditions by Emma Löfgren for The Local.

The Christmas season begins with St. Lucia’s day on December 13. Families may celebrate by having one of their daughters get up early and serve coffee and baked goods while dressed in the traditional St. Lucia costume of a white dress, red sash, and a wreath on her head with seven lit candles. Towns and schools elect their own Lucias, and a national Lucia is chosen and announced on television.

Swedes celebrate many customs that Americans would be familiar with, such as setting up a Christmas tree and exchanging gifts. It used to be that the gift-giver would write a short verse about what the present contained, but this doesn’t seem to still be widely done. A tradition that has held is the Disney Christmas special, broadcast at 3:00 PM nationwide every year since 1959.

As everywhere, food is an important part of celebrations. A classic Christmas smorgasbord (or julbord) includes herring, sausage, ham, meatballs, rice pudding, and lutfisk, a dish made of lye-soaked dried fish.

Decorations vary from family to family, but often involve candles, Advent calendars, fresh flowers such as hyacinths, and the Christmas goat, or julbock, often made of straw. The julbock is thought to have originated with the goats that drew the Norse god Thor’s chariot. At one point, it was the julbock and not Santa Claus that delivered the gifts. Though Santa has taken over, the goat remains a part of the season. Since 1966, the town of Gävle has built an enormous straw goat at the beginning of Advent, but it’s an irresistible target for vandals and has been burned down nearly every year.

The Christmas season doesn’t officially end until St. Knut’s Day on January 13, at which point the tree is taken down and everything is put away until next year.

Our patrons can see Frederick Backman’s own take on the holidays in his recently published novella, The Deal of a Lifetime.

Friday, December 1, 2017

What’s the white powder on grapes? Is it a pesticide?

You may have noticed a whitish coating on certain fruits. It’s particularly visible on grapes, plums, and blueberries. It’s epicuticular wax, also known as “bloom,” a natural and harmless part of many plants. The coating protects the plants and seals in their moisture. It’s what makes water slide off fresh kale, and it gives blue spruce trees their distinctive color. You can also find in on certain succulents.

Fruit in the supermarket has often been artificially waxed to make it last longer and look more appealing, and because the process of picking and washing it stripped it of its natural protective coat. Sometimes, epicuticular wax from other plants is used. Carnauba wax (which can be found in everything from cosmetics to furniture polish) comes from a species of palm tree that grows in Brazil; the wax is harvested by beating the dried palm fronds. Other petroleum-, shellac-, vegetable-, or beeswax-based waxes may also be used.

According to Consumer Reports, there is concern that the wax coating may help trap pesticide residue. They recommend buying organic when possible and making sure to thoroughly wash produce. In an article from October of this year, Catherine Roberts suggested that soaking fruits and vegetables in a baking soda solution may be effective in removing some pesticides.

We got our information from ThoughtCo, Consumer Reports, The Atlantic, Succulent Identifier, Washington State University’s Tree Fruit Research & Extension Center, The Demystified Vine, and The Botanist in the Kitchen. If you want to learn more, Aliza Green’s Field Guide to Produce and Melissa’s Great Book of Produce by Cathy Thomas both give tips on how to buy, store, and use fresh fruits and vegetables, while Richard Gianfrancesco’s How to Grow Food and Barbara Pleasant’s Homegrown Pantry explain how to grow your own.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Is there a difference between seltzer, sparkling water, mineral water, club soda, and tonic water?

One of our patrons bought club soda instead of seltzer and they wanted to know what the difference was. It turned out that they all taste about the same, except for tonic water, even though they come from slightly different sources. We found the answer in several sources, including Epicurious,, and Kitchn.

Sparkling water seems to be an umbrella term that encompasses any kind of carbonated water, but it’s usually used in reference to seltzer or mineral water.

Seltzer is plain water that’s been carbonated to give it fizz. It may also be flavored. LaCroix, Scweppe’s, and Canada Dry all sell seltzers. (On their website, LaCroix maintains that they’re a sparkling water and not a seltzer, alleging that sparkling water is sodium free and does not contain artificial flavor, but other sources did not note a difference.) The word “seltzer” comes from “Selters,” a German brand of mineral water that’s been around since the 17th century at least.

Sparkling mineral water, such as Perrier or San Pellegrino, comes from underground springs and contains naturally occurring minerals. It may be naturally carbonated by gases in the spring or carbon dioxide may have been added. Since it’s typically imported from Europe, it’s more expensive than seltzer, club soda, or tonic water.

Club soda is seltzer with added ingredients that make it taste more like a mineral water. It usually includes sodium bicarbonate (also known as baking soda), sodium citrate, and potassium sulfate.

Tonic water is the most dissimilar. (It’s also the only one that glows under a blacklight!) While other sparkling waters may or may not be flavored, tonic water is always flavored with quinine, a bitter-tasting compound found in the bark of the cinchona tree, and typically sweetened with sugar or corn syrup. Quinine was once used to treat and prevent malaria; the gin and tonic cocktail originated when British soldiers in India were attempting to make their anti-malarial more palatable.

For more interesting uses for sparkling water, Anton Nocito provides recipes for homemade soda and cocktails made with syrup and sparkling water in Make Your Own Soda, available for borrowing at the Newton Falls Public Library or as an ebook.

Friday, November 3, 2017

When did scarecrows first come about?

According to Thom Sokoloski and Jenny McCowan at, Cindy Murphy’s article for Grit and Lori Rotenberk’s article for Modern Farmer, scarecrows have been around as long as people have grown crops, but they haven’t always looked like the ones you might be familiar with. The early Egyptian scarecrows, constructed along the Nile River, didn't look like people at all. Egyptian farmers had a problem with wild quail, so they built wooden frames with nets and had people herd the quail into them. Famers in pre-feudal Japan sometimes used a scarecrow called a kakashi. A kakashi consists of old rags and other bad-smelling items mounted on a pole with bells and other noisemakers and set afire. The smell and smoke would keep birds away.

Ancient Greek and Roman scarecrows were more humanoid. They built statues of their fertility god in their gardens and fields to protect against birds and other thieves. In Britain during the Middle Ages, actual children would work in the fields as “crow-scarers,” knocking together blocks of wood to scare away the birds. Some Native American tribes and early settlers also employed the human bird-scarer technique. With population fluctuations and a need for more farmers to be working the field, this job was passed on from actual people to stuffed sacks gourds for heads, the precursors to scarecrows as we know them today.

Today, farmers can use high-tech gadgets to scare away birds, such as chemicals or ultrasonic waves, but the old-fashioned scarecrow is iconic. In America it is used as a symbol of the autumn, particularly of Halloween, and many towns have festivals celebrating scarecrows of all shapes and sizes. Scarecrows can be used to frighten and to entertain, but they will always be associated with the harvest.