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ThinkStock/Erin McCarthy
ThinkStock/Erin McCarthy

Who Writes the Messages in Fortune Cookies?

ThinkStock/Erin McCarthy
ThinkStock/Erin McCarthy

By Karina Martinez-Carter

People often take fortune cookie messages to heart. They crack open the yellow crescent moon cookies that conclude their Chinese restaurant meal, and eagerly hunt for predictions, revelations, and deeper meaning. Many save their favorites, carrying them around in a wallet.

But these often-odd messages are not axioms from the beyond. The epigrams originate in a handful of factories that each churn out upward of 4 million little slips of wisdom a day.

Wonton Food, Inc. is the world's largest manufacturer of fortune cookies and fortune cookie messages. It was established in 1973 and is based in the New York City area, with an additional factory in Houston. Wonton Food ships between 4.5 million and 5 million cookies per day to restaurants and chains throughout the U.S. and to Canada, Latin America, and Europe.

Yang's Fortunes, Inc., founded in 1996 and based in San Francisco, just handles printing, cutting, and packaging fortunes to send off to clients baking them into cookies. Yang's churns out about 4 million fortunes per day.

Fortune cookies are conspicuously absent from restaurants in China. But in the Westernized version of Chinese dining, the treats are expected at the end of every Chinese restaurant meal, or included in a take-out order. The founders of Wonton Food and Yang's Fortunes both started off focused on other Chinese cuisine products. But each recognized the growing demand for fortune cookies and their baked-in aphorisms, and capitalized on it.

In 2005, The New Yorker profiled Donald Lau, who at the time was vice president of Wonton Food, Inc. and the person writing the fortunes. Lau scribbled off fortunes in between his other duties, gleaning inspiration from wherever he could find it — like signs in the subway, as The New Yorker recounts. Since then, the company has brought on freelance writers to supplement Lau's output of adages.

Lisa Yang, vice president of Yang's Fortunes and daughter of founder Steven Yang, fell into writing fortunes, as well. When her father expanded into printing fortunes, he hired a writer to translate Chinese proverbs. Because cultural context was lost in translation, they often ended up nonsensical. Lisa Yang would edit them in her free time. In college, she spent a lot of time writing and rewriting the fortunes, even when her father hired a writer and a teacher to assist with the duty. Lisa Yang would read books of quotes for inspiration, and peruse daily horoscopes to get in the mindset to create new messages.

Yang joined her family's company full-time in 2005, after graduating college. Today, the company has a database of about 5,000 fortunes, and no one on the payroll dedicated to producing new ones. Still, Yang will sometimes add fortunes if the mood moves her. She admits spending nights from time to time sifting through blogs dedicated to fortune cookies. "I think it's fun being the person behind this," she told me. "Fortune cookies are such a part of our lives. Even when I go to Chinese restaurant I always share my fortune out loud with friends. We always want to know what the other one has."

Fortunes also are tweaked based on client feedback. "You will meet a tall, dark stranger" was removed from circulation when people complained they found it sinister.

Wonton Food contracts freelance writers once every couple years to craft new messages for the company's database of about 15,000 fortunes. "We understand opening a fortune cookie is an exciting moment, so that is why we renew our database — to create exciting moments for people," says Danny Zeng, vice president of sales. One of the last such attempts to spice up messages was earlier this year, when the generally vague, sunny messages got a bit racier with quips like "The evening promises romantic interest" or "Romance and travel go together." The company did get some complaints about children receiving such sayings. "We want to create excitement, but not offend," Zeng says.

Yang finds that people are often surprised to learn she and her family are behind many of the fortune cookies they receive, and they often pull out the favorites from their wallet to show her. And if knowing the business origins of treasured, seemingly omniscient fortune cookie messages brings them disappointingly back to earth, they can at least still hang onto the belief that the cosmos conspired to land a particular cookie in their hands.

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Big Questions
How Are Speed Limits Set?
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When driving down a road where speed limits are oppressively low, or high enough to let drivers get away with reckless behavior, it's easy to blame the government for getting it wrong. But you and your fellow drivers play a bigger a role in determining speed limits than you might think.

Before cities can come up with speed limit figures, they first need to look at how fast motorists drive down certain roads when there are no limitations. According to The Sacramento Bee, officials conduct speed surveys on two types of roads: arterial roads (typically four-lane highways) and collector streets (two-lane roads connecting residential areas to arterials). Once the data has been collected, they toss out the fastest 15 percent of drivers. The thinking is that this group is probably going faster than what's safe and isn't representative of the average driver. The sweet spot, according to the state, is the 85th percentile: Drivers in this group are thought to occupy the Goldilocks zone of safety and efficiency.

Officials use whatever speed falls in the 85th percentile to set limits for that street, but they do have some wiggle room. If the average speed is 33 mph, for example, they’d normally round up to 35 or down to 30 to reach the nearest 5-mph increment. Whether they decide to make the number higher or lower depends on other information they know about that area. If there’s a risky turn, they might decide to round down and keep drivers on the slow side.

A road’s crash rate also comes into play: If the number of collisions per million miles traveled for that stretch of road is higher than average, officials might lower the speed limit regardless of the 85th percentile rule. Roads that have a history of accidents might also warrant a special signal or sign to reinforce the new speed limit.

For other types of roads, setting speed limits is more of a cut-and-dry process. Streets that run through school zones, business districts, and residential areas are all assigned standard speed limits that are much lower than what drivers might hit if given free rein.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Do Bacteria Have Bacteria?
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Drew Smith:

Do bacteria have bacteria? Yes.

We know that bacteria range in size from 0.2 micrometers to nearly one millimeter. That’s more than a thousand-fold difference, easily enough to accommodate a small bacterium inside a larger one.

Nothing forbids bacteria from invading other bacteria, and in biology, that which is not forbidden is inevitable.

We have at least one example: Like many mealybugs, Planococcus citri has a bacterial endosymbiont, in this case the β-proteobacterium Tremblaya princeps. And this endosymbiont in turn has the γ-proteobacterium Moranella endobia living inside it. See for yourself:

Fluorescent In-Situ Hybridization confirming that intrabacterial symbionts reside inside Tremblaya cells in (A) M. hirsutus and (B) P. marginatus mealybugs. Tremblaya cells are in green, and γ-proteobacterial symbionts are in red. (Scale bar: 10 μm.)
Fluorescent In-Situ Hybridization confirming that intrabacterial symbionts reside inside Tremblaya cells in (A) M. hirsutus and (B) P. marginatus mealybugs. Tremblaya cells are in green, and γ-proteobacterial symbionts are in red. (Scale bar: 10 μm.)

I don’t know of examples of free-living bacteria hosting other bacteria within them, but that reflects either my ignorance or the likelihood that we haven’t looked hard enough for them. I’m sure they are out there.

Most (not all) scientists studying the origin of eukaryotic cells believe that they are descended from Archaea.

All scientists accept that the mitochondria which live inside eukaryotic cells are descendants of invasive alpha-proteobacteria. What’s not clear is whether archeal cells became eukaryotic in nature—that is, acquired internal membranes and transport systems—before or after acquiring mitochondria. The two scenarios can be sketched out like this:


The two hypotheses on the origin of eukaryotes:

(A) Archaezoan hypothesis.

(B) Symbiotic hypothesis.

The shapes within the eukaryotic cell denote the nucleus, the endomembrane system, and the cytoskeleton. The irregular gray shape denotes a putative wall-less archaeon that could have been the host of the alpha-proteobacterial endosymbiont, whereas the oblong red shape denotes a typical archaeon with a cell wall. A: archaea; B: bacteria; E: eukaryote; LUCA: last universal common ancestor of cellular life forms; LECA: last eukaryotic common ancestor; E-arch: putative archaezoan (primitive amitochondrial eukaryote); E-mit: primitive mitochondrial eukaryote; alpha:alpha-proteobacterium, ancestor of the mitochondrion.

The Archaezoan hypothesis has been given a bit of a boost by the discovery of Lokiarcheota. This complex Archaean has genes for phagocytosis, intracellular membrane formation and intracellular transport and signaling—hallmark activities of eukaryotic cells. The Lokiarcheotan genes are clearly related to eukaryotic genes, indicating a common origin.

Bacteria-within-bacteria is not only not a crazy idea, it probably accounts for the origin of Eucarya, and thus our own species.

We don’t know how common this arrangement is—we mostly study bacteria these days by sequencing their DNA. This is great for detecting uncultivatable species (which are 99 percent of them), but doesn’t tell us whether they are free-living or are some kind of symbiont. For that, someone would have to spend a lot of time prepping environmental samples for close examination by microscopic methods, a tedious project indeed. But one well worth doing, as it may shed more light on the history of life—which is often a history of conflict turned to cooperation. That’s a story which never gets old or stale.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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