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How Do Postal Workers Decipher Sloppy Handwriting?

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Neither rain, nor sleet, nor gloom of night will keep the post office from delivering the mail. And neither will chicken scratch.

Each year, the USPS successfully ships over 160 billion packages and letters. Most of that mail—98 percent of it—is swiftly organized by automated sorting machines, which use advanced optical lenses to make out each address. But the machines have their kryptonite. Last year, they failed to read some 2.4 billion pieces of mail—all because of messy handwriting.

If you’re a sloppy scribbler, don’t feel too guilty. Your poor penmanship makes you a job creator! According to The New York Times, more than 700 postal clerks are based in Salt Lake City to decipher America’s most cryptic envelopes. And they mean business. The plant operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Each clerk processes about 20 letters per minute (that’s 1200 an hour!). If a clerk wastes too much time unearthing the address, the letter may get routed to another worker who can do it faster.

How it works

When a sorting machine discovers an illegible letter, it scans it and sends a digital image to the plant in Salt Lake. The image pops onto a worker’s computer. With the help of special software—and a lot of geographical knowhow—the clerk punches in whatever legible letters and numbers they can make out. Through a process of elimination, they keep digging for clues until they find a valid address, which the system confirms. Amazingly, the average clerk can crack the code in just three seconds. (Not everyone can keep up. Twenty percent of new hires quit within five weeks, the Wall Street Journal reports.)

But some letters remain a mystery. Each year, 200 million of the most baffling and awfully penned envelopes are handed down to a team of peek-and-poke clerks, a dying breed of postal worker who sorts mail the old-fashioned way—by hand.

If they can’t translate the slipshod script, the letters are christened “nixies.” The mail is sent to the last line of penmanship gurus, the nixie clerks. If they can’t untangle the meaning behind the scribbles, no one can. The mail may end up in one of two “dead letter offices.” Any valuables get auctioned off, and the correspondence lands a date with the office shredder.

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Big Questions
Why Is Soda Measured in Liters?
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Never a nation to fall in line, America is one of the few countries to resist the metric system. We stubbornly measure distance in miles and weight in pounds. So what’s with those two-liter bottles of soda?

First, a clarification: Soda is far from the only substance we measure in metric units. Heck, it’s not even the only beverage. Wine, liquor, and bottled water are sold by the milliliter. The healthcare field is all about metric units, too, from cholesterol levels to prescription, over-the-counter, and supplement dosages. We run 5-kilometer races, ride on 215-millimeter tires, and use 8-millimeter cameras, or at least we used to.

In most other things, we determinedly cling to our imperial measurements. Attempts to convince Americans to join the rest of the metric-measuring world have been met with great resistance.

Ken Butcher of the National Institute of Science and Technology has been working with the government’s tiny Metric Program for years. Speaking to Mental Floss back in 2013, Butcher explained that we’re so entrenched in our way of doing things that switching measurement systems now would be both chaotic and expensive.

"If we were going to start a new country all with the metric system, it would be easy," he said. "But when you have to go in and change almost everything that touches people’s everyday life and their physical and mental experience, their education, and then you take that away from them—it can be scary."

Here and there, though, when it’s convenient, we have been willing to budge. The soda bottle is a good example. Until 1970, all soft drinks in the U.S. were sold in fluid ounces and gallons, mostly in glass bottles. Then the plastic polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottle came along, and soft drink makers decided it was time for a product redesign.

The redesign process coincided with two key factors: a short-lived wave of government interest in going metric, and the burgeoning environmental movement.

The folks at PepsiCo decided to meld all three into its exciting new vessel: a lightweight, cheap, recyclable, metric bottle, with built-in fins so it could stand up on supermarket shelves. Two liters: the soda size of the future.

The two-liter bottle took off. The rest of the soft drink world had no choice but to get on board. And voila: liters of cola for all.

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
Where Is the Hottest Place on Earth?
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The summer of 2017 will go down as an endurance test of sorts for the people of Phoenix, Arizona. The National Weather Service issued an extreme heat warning, and planes were grounded as a result of temperatures exceeding 120 degrees. (Heat affects air density, which in turn affects a plane’s lift.)

Despite those dire measures, Phoenix is not the hottest place on Earth. And it’s not even close.

That dubious honor was bestowed on the Lut Desert in Iran in 2005, when land temperatures were recorded at a staggering 159.3 degrees Fahrenheit. The remote area was off the grid—literally—for many years until satellites began to measure temperatures in areas that were either not well trafficked on foot or not measured with the proper instruments. Lut also measured record temperatures in 2004, 2006, 2007, and 2009.

Before satellites registered Lut as a contender, one of the hottest areas on Earth was thought to be El Azizia, Libya, where a 1922 measurement of 136 degrees stood as a record for decades. (Winds blowing from the nearby Sahara Desert contributed to the oppressive heat.)

While the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) acknowledged this reading as the hottest on record for years, they later declared that instrumentation problems and other concerns led to new doubts about the accuracy.

Naturally, declaring the hottest place on Earth might be about more than just a single isolated reading. If it’s consistency we’re after, then the appropriately-named Death Valley in California, where temperatures are consistently 90 degrees or above for roughly half the year and at least 100 degrees for 140 days annually, has to be a contender. A blistering temperature of 134 degrees was recorded there in 1913.

Both Death Valley and Libya were measured using air temperature readings, while Lut was taken from a land reading, making all three pretty valid contenders. These are not urban areas, and paving the hottest place on Earth with sidewalks would be a very, very bad idea. Temperatures as low as 95 degrees can cause blacktop and pavement to reach skin-scorching temperatures of 141 degrees.

There are always additional factors to consider beyond a temperature number, however. In 2015, Bandar Mahshahr in Iran recorded temperatures of 115 degrees but a heat index—what it feels like outside when accounting for significant humidity—of an astounding 163 degrees. That thought might be one of the few things able to cool Phoenix residents off.

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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