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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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Why Does Turkey Make You Tired?
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Why do people have such a hard time staying awake after Thanksgiving dinner? Most people blame tryptophan, but that's not really the main culprit. And what is tryptophan, anyway?

Tryptophan is an amino acid that the body uses in the processes of making vitamin B3 and serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate sleep. It can't be produced by our bodies, so we need to get it through our diet. From which foods, exactly? Turkey, of course, but also other meats, chocolate, bananas, mangoes, dairy products, eggs, chickpeas, peanuts, and a slew of other foods. Some of these foods, like cheddar cheese, have more tryptophan per gram than turkey. Tryptophan doesn't have much of an impact unless it's taken on an empty stomach and in an amount larger than what we're getting from our drumstick. So why does turkey get the rap as a one-way ticket to a nap?

The urge to snooze is more the fault of the average Thanksgiving meal and all the food and booze that go with it. Here are a few things that play into the nap factor:

Fats: That turkey skin is delicious, but fats take a lot of energy to digest, so the body redirects blood to the digestive system. Reduced blood flow in the rest of the body means reduced energy.

Alcohol: What Homer Simpson called the cause of—and solution to—all of life's problems is also a central nervous system depressant.

Overeating: Same deal as fats. It takes a lot of energy to digest a big feast (the average Thanksgiving meal contains 3000 calories and 229 grams of fat), so blood is sent to the digestive process system, leaving the brain a little tired.

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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How Are Balloons Chosen for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade?
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The balloons for this year's Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade range from the classics like Charlie Brown to more modern characters who have debuted in the past few years, including The Elf On The Shelf. New to the parade this year are Olaf from Disney's Frozen and Chase from Paw Patrol. But how does the retail giant choose which characters will appear in the lineup?

Balloon characters are chosen in different ways. For example, in 2011, Macy’s requested B. Boy after parade organizers saw the Tim Burton retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. (The company had been adding a series of art balloons to the parade lineup since 2005, which it called the Blue Sky Gallery.) When it comes to commercial balloons, though, it appears to be all about the Benjamins.

First-time balloons cost at least $190,000—this covers admission into the parade and the cost of balloon construction. After the initial year, companies can expect to pay Macy’s about $90,000 to get a character into the parade lineup. If you consider that the balloons are out for only an hour or so, that’s about $1500 a minute.

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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