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14 One-Click Facts About Amazon

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Image Credit: Michael Radtke, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

With over 244 million regular customers buying everything from books to socks to uranium ore, Amazon.com has achieved founder Jeff Bezos’ goal of becoming "the everything store." Take a look at some lesser-known facts about the company that has unprecedented access to your wallet.  

1. They Got in Trouble For Selling Dolphin Meat.

And whale bacon. In 2012, environmental activists launched an email siege on the retailer after it was discovered Amazon Japan trafficked in meat products taken from whales and dolphins, including some endangered species. Over 100 items, including canned whale meat and whale jerky, were pulled.  

2. There’s a Giant Cave Bear in Their Lobby.

When Amazon began experimenting with an eBay-esque auction platform, Bezos himself completed a major transaction: he purchased a complete Ice Age cave bear skeleton for $40,000. The towering specimen now stands in the lobby of the company’s corporate offices in Seattle. (The cave bear is known for having a penis bone that was frequently fractured during fights. It is not part of the display.)

3. They Once Cleaned Out Toys "R" Us to Have Christmas Inventory.

Selling toys—particularly during the chaotic holiday season—can be a trying experience for retailers. Unlike many consumer goods, toys are frequently allocated by their distributors. In order to have enough stock to satisfy the 1999 Pokémon craze, Amazon employees gobbled up every last Pikachu from the Toys "R" Us website, took advantage of the free shipping, then re-sold the items to their own customers. (Toys "R" Us, which was just getting into e-commerce, had no system in place to identify mass-scale purchasing.)  

4. You Can Turn Your Kindle Into an Etch A Sketch.

Zhao !, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

E Ink technology relies on magnetic capsules the size of a human hair to display text. While that’s not quite how the fondly-remembered Etch A Sketch works—it used an analog stylus to move aluminum powder—it’s close enough for an app called Doodle to be able to transform your Kindle into a makeshift homage to the toy.

5. Their Fastest Delivery May Have Been 23 Minutes.

When same-day Prime service was instituted in Manhattan, the company claims one customer got their item in a record 23 minutes. (It was an Easy-Bake Oven.) 

6. Those Positive Reviews May Not Be Sincere.

Positive reviews are the currency of books on Amazon; a cluster of praise can often be a deciding factor in whether or not to hit "Add to Cart." In 2012, an Oklahoma business came under fire for offering four and five-star reviews in exchange for fees—up to $999 for 50 glowing endorsements. Similar services are currently being sued by Amazon on the grounds the company has policies against manipulating reviews.

7. You Can’t Buy an iPhone From Them.

You’ll find MacBooks, Apple TV, and other Apple products on Amazon, but there’s a very poor chance you’ll see a new iPhone offered. That’s because the companies don’t appear to see eye-to-eye in business matters, and possibly because Amazon’s Kindle offerings are competing for tablet market share with Apple’s iPad line. (Used phones are available via third-party sellers.)

8.  Their First Customer Got a Building Named After Him.

Amazon

Software engineer John Wainwright was a friend of Amazon employee Shal Kaphan: on April 3, 1995, he got the opportunity to place the first non-employee order from a now-quaint Amazon.com (above) for a book on artificial intelligence titled Creative Concepts and Fluid Analogies. Bezos later named a building after Wainwright to honor the occasion. He also named a building Rufus after a dog that would frequently join his owners at their pet-friendly offices.

9. They’ll Pay Employees To Quit.

In 2014, Amazon launched a "Pay to Quit" program aimed at reducing the number of unmotivated warehouse employees at its fulfillment centers. If a worker hands in a resignation, they’ll get $3,000. By 2017, the amount is expected to be $5,000. Less than 10 percent of the first wave of staffers offered the deal took them up on it.

10. You Can Tour Their Warehouses.

While an Amazon Fulfillment Center may not seem like a popular tourist destination, the company is offering the opportunity anyway. Four Phoenix-area warehouses are among the worldwide locations open for public viewing on certain days of the month—presumably with air conditioning. The company received criticism in 2011 for operating warehouses in excess of 100 degrees, parking ambulances outside to care for heat stroke victims.

11. Their Japanese Mascot is Pretty Adorable.

Kathryn Cartwright, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Danbo, the unofficial sentient shipping box mascot of Amazon Japan, is so popular among consumers that Danbo toys and other merchandise are readily available; memes featuring him in various predicaments are hugely popular. But Danbo (which means “corrugated cardboard”) actually originated in the pages of artist Kiyohiko Azuma’s manga work and has no overt ties to the company—though they don’t seem to mind him one bit.

12. The CIA is a Customer.

The Central Intelligence Agency signed a $600 million deal with Amazon in 2013 for cloud computing storage, part of Amazon Web Services (AWS). The partnership has raised eyebrows due to concern the e-giant might wind up sharing private customer information with the government: a petition is circulating that demands Amazon issue a strict policy of not sharing any data.

13. Bezos Wanted to Call It MakeItSo.com.

An avowed Star Trek fan since childhood, Bezos thought MakeItSo.com would be a fitting name for an online storefront he believed could deliver anything to anyone. That idea fell by the wayside for Amazon.com, named after the world’s largest river. (And because lists for Web links were originally alphabetized.)

14. They Don’t Actually Make Any Money.

Chez Pitch, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

With $89 billion in sales last year, Amazon has grown to monolithic proportions. But that same timeframe also saw the company lose $241 million overall due to massive operating expenses, putting their profit margin in the tank. With acquisitions, innovations, and generous return policies, the company has set its sights on long-term success, building an infrastructure that will pay off years or decades down the line. The next time you wonder how the company can afford low prices, spend billions in advancing technology all while offering free shipping on a 1.5 ton gun safe, the answer is: they really can’t.  

Additional Sources: The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon.  

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10 Facts About Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary
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October 16 is World Dictionary Day, which each year celebrates the birthday of the American lexicographer Noah Webster, who was born in Connecticut in 1758. Last year, Mental Floss marked the occasion with a list of facts about Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language—the enormous two-volume dictionary, published in 1828 when Webster was 70 years old, that established many of the differences that still divide American and British English to this day. But while Webster was America’s foremost lexicographer, on the other side of the Atlantic, Great Britain had Dr. Samuel Johnson.

Johnson—whose 308th birthday was marked with a Google Doodle in September—published the equally groundbreaking Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, three years before Webster was even born. Its influence was arguably just as great as that of Webster’s, and it remained the foremost dictionary of British English until the early 1900s when the very first installments of the Oxford English Dictionary began to appear.

So to mark this year’s Dictionary Day, here are 10 facts about Johnson’s monumental dictionary.

1. IT WASN’T THE FIRST DICTIONARY.

With more than 40,000 entries, Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language was certainly the largest dictionary in the history of the English language at the time but, despite popular opinion, it wasn’t the first. Early vocabularies and glossaries were being compiled as far back as the Old English period, when lists of words and their equivalents in languages like Latin and French first began to be used by scribes and translators. These were followed by educational word lists and then early bilingual dictionaries that began to emerge in the 16th century, which all paved the way for what is now considered the very first English dictionary: Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall—in 1604.

2. SAMUEL JOHNSON BORROWED FROM THE DICTIONARIES THAT CAME BEFORE HIS.

In compiling his dictionary, Johnson drew on Nathan Bailey’s Dictionarium Britanicum, which had been published in 1730. (Ironically, a sequel to Bailey’s dictionary, A New Universal Etymological English Dictionary, was published in the same year as Johnson’s, and borrowed heavily from his work; its author, Joseph Nicoll Scott, even gave Johnson some credit for its publication.)

But just as Johnson had borrowed from Bailey and Scott had borrowed from Johnson, Bailey, too had borrowed from an earlier work—namely John Kersey’s Dictionarium Anglo-Britannicum (1708)—which was based in part on a technical vocabulary, John Harris’s Universal English Dictionary of Arts and Sciences. Lexicographic plagiarism was nothing new.

3. THE DICTIONARY WASN’T THE ONLY THING JOHNSON WROTE.

Although he’s best remembered as a lexicographer today, Johnson was actually something of a literary multitasker. As a journalist, he wrote for an early periodical called The Gentlemen’s Magazine. As a biographer, he wrote the Life of Mr Richard Savage (1744), a memoir of a friend and fellow writer who had died the previous year. Johnson also wrote numerous poems (London, published anonymously in 1738, was his first major published work), a novel (Rasselas, 1759), a stage play (Irene, 1749), and countless essays and critiques. He also co-edited an edition of Shakespeare’s plays. And in between all of that, he even found time to investigate a supposed haunted house in central London.

4. IT WAS THE FIRST DICTIONARY TO USE QUOTATIONS.

Johnson’s dictionary defined some 42,773 words, each of which was given a uniquely scholarly definition, complete with a suggested etymology and an armory of literary quotations—no fewer than 114,000 of them, in fact.

Johnson lifted quotations from books dating back to the 16th century for the citations in his dictionary, and relied heavily on the works of authors he admired and who were popular at the time—Shakespeare, John Milton, Alexander Pope, and Edmund Spenser included. In doing so, he established a lexicographic trend that still survives in dictionaries to this day.

5. IT TOOK MORE THAN EIGHT YEARS TO WRITE.

Defining 42,000 words and finding 114,000 quotes to help you do so takes time: Working from his home off Fleet Street in central London, Johnson and six assistants worked solidly for over eight years to bring his dictionary to print. (Webster, on the other hand, worked all but single-handedly, and used the 22 years it took him to compile his American Dictionary to learn 26 different languages.)

6. JOHNSON WAS WELL PAID FOR HIS TROUBLES.

Johnson was commissioned to write his dictionary by a group of London publishers, who paid him a princely 1,500 guineas—equivalent to roughly $300,000 (£225,000) today.

7. HE LEFT OUT A LOT OF WORDS.

The dictionary’s 42,000-word vocabulary might sound impressive, but it’s believed that the English language probably had as many as five times that many words around the time the dictionary was published in 1755. A lot of that shortfall was simply due to oversight: Johnson included the word irritable in four of his definitions, for instance, but didn’t list it as a headword in his own dictionary. He also failed to include a great many words found in the works of the authors he so admired, and in several of the source dictionaries he utilized, and in some cases he even failed to include the root forms of words whose derivatives were listed elsewhere in the dictionary. Athlete, for instance, didn’t make the final cut, whereas athletic did.

Johnson’s imposition of his own tastes and interests on his dictionary didn't help matters either. His dislike of French, for example, led to familiar words like unique, champagne, and bourgeois being omitted, while those he did include were given a thorough dressing down: ruse is defined as “a French word neither elegant nor necessary,” while finesse is dismissed as “an unnecessary word that is creeping into the language."

8. HE LEFT OUT THE LETTER X.

    At the foot of page 2308 of Johnson’s Dictionary is a note merely reading, “X is a letter which, though found in Saxon words, begins no word in the English language."

    9. HIS DEFINITIONS WEREN’T ALWAYS SO SCHOLARLY.

      As well as imposing his own taste on his dictionary, Johnson also famously employed his own sense of humor on his work. Among the most memorable of all his definitions is his explanation of oats as “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” But he also defined monsieur as “a term of reproach for a Frenchman,” excise as “a hateful tax levied upon commodities and adjudged not by the common judges of property but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid,” and luggage as “anything of more weight than value.” As an example of how to use the word dull, he explained that “to make dictionaries is dull work.”

      10. HE POKED LOTS OF FUN AT HIS OWN OCCUPATION.

      Listed on page 1195 of his dictionary, Johnson’s definition of lexicographer was “a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge.”

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      Inside This Pop-Up Book Are a Planetarium, a Speaker, a Decoder Ring, and More
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      Courtesy Chronicle Books

      Designer Kelli Anderson's new book is for more than just reading. This Book Is a Planetarium is really a collection of paper gadgets. With each thick, card stock page you turn, another surprise pops out.

      "This book concisely explains—and actively demonstrates with six functional pop-up paper contraptions—the science at play in our everyday world," the book's back cover explains. It turns out, there's a whole lot you can do with a few pieces of paper and a little bit of imagination.

      A book is open to reveal a spiralgraph inside.
      Courtesy Chronicle Books

      There's the eponymous planetarium, a paper dome that you can use with your cell phone's flashlight to project constellations onto the ceiling. There's a conical speaker, which you can use to amplify a smaller music player. There's a spiralgraph you can use to make geometric designs. There's a basic cipher you can use to encode and decode secret messages, and on its reverse side, a calendar. There's a stringed musical instrument you can play on. All are miniature, functional machines that can expand your perceptions of what a simple piece of paper can become.

      The cover of This Book Is a Planetarium
      Courtesy Chronicle Books

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