June 4, 2023

"The containers for milk are always square boxes, containers for mineral water are always round bottles..."

"... and round wine bottles are usually placed in square boxes. Write an essay on the subtle philosophy of the round and the square."

That's an exam question from the standardized college-entrance exam in China, as quoted in "Knowing What We Know: The Transmission of Knowledge: From Ancient Wisdom to Modern Magic" by Simon Winchester.

52 comments:

Kate said...

What a delightful exam question. Tempting to write and open-ended enough to enjoy reading/evaluating. The book sounds good, too.

Dave Begley said...

Here’s the real China exam question: Coca-Cola comes in a can. DuPont has a secret coating for lining the can so that the liquid doesn’t weaken the strength of the can and so that it retains its structural integrity.

Describe how you would steal this IP.

Bonus points for how you would steal Coke’s IP.

Mea Sententia said...

"...the subtle philosophy of the round and the square."

The first thing that came to mind here was Vitruvian Man and the Renaissance fascination with circles, squares, and the human form.

Christy said...

During the Tang Dynasty the answer would have had to be in graceful verse with much specific symbolism. Mandarin exams were killer.

Iman said...

Q: what does one not always get with two?

A: egg roll

Old and slow said...

This is the sort of post that keeps me coming back.

Sebastian said...

Thesis statement: any square likes round but not all rounds like square.

Enigma said...

Old-school liquor bottles were often square because it's smaller/cheaper/easier to ship them. See Johnny Walker scotch and Jack Daniels whiskey.

Modern liquor bottles are often absurdly tall (every brand of top-shelf Vodka) to stand out in a bar, or have an arty and impractical shape for distinct branding and to prod impulse buys in a store or bar.

Implied frugality vs. indulgence...implied tradition vs. modernity...

John henry said...

I toil in the vineyards of packaging and this question immediately grabbed me. Why are most wine bottles round and most milk bottles square? Tradition, mainly, I think. Though there are other reasons too.

Plus it is Simon Winchester

Plus it is about how we know what we know.

A triple header for me and I immediately downloaded the sample. I'll start it as soon as I finish Tom Hank's novel, probably tonight.

The tom hanks Novel "the making of another major motion picture masterpiece" is terrific and I highly recommend it

John LGKTQ Henry

John henry said...

Dave B

If you mean the Coke "secret" formula, you don't need to steal it. It is pretty well known and pretty trivial to duplicate the exact flavor.

While stealing the formula from Coke would be illegal, analyzing Coca-Cola samples, figuring out the ingredients and duplicating the flavor exactly as "Mojo-Cola" is fine.

Cott Beverages does just this for Sam's Cola (Walmart).

Ditto the can lining. I was surprised to hear it would be worth going to the trouble of stealing.

John LGKTQ Henry

John henry said...

There is a pretty mundane reason why milk boxes are square.

The aseptic milk and juice boxes are simple pillow bags just like potato chips come in. Here's a brief article how pillow bags are formed.

Much milk in Canada and parts of the us is sold in these bags. But they do not stand up and require a special pitcher

The milk boxes have creases and the ears folded over to form a box that will stand up on the shelf.

Gable top milk cartons are just cartons. Very difficult to make a round carton. Might be impossible to make one that will hold a liquid.

John LGKTQ Henry

ColoComment said...

Simon Winchester writes fascinating books. The Map That Changed The World is the most recent that I've read; The Professor and the Madman, Land, and The Perfectionists, are others.
In each and every one he manages to collect relatively obscure facts of history and weave them into mesmerizing stories.

John henry said...

Forgot the link

https://www.packagingdigest.com/flexible-packaging/how-do-vertical-form-fill-seal-machines-make-pillow-bags

John LGKTQ Henry

n.n said...

Milk containers were round, now they are square. Tessellating patterns matter to density, material, and profit. Tactile grip matters in a state of stupor.

Robert Marshall said...

Fresh milk products must be stored in expensive refrigerated boxes at the bottler, in transportation, and at the retailer; square milk boxes fit together nicely, so are more economically stored, that way.

The rule of Lemnity said...

There’s a Dominican saying “La pelota es redonda y viene en caja cuadrada.” Loosely translated : “A baseball is round and it comes in a square box”.

I believe the English version to be “don’t judge a book by its cover.”

The substance of a person, the content of their character can be unwisely judged when merely done superficially.

“…for a man's life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.“ Luke 12:15

JAORE said...

Every year we import a few bottles of an Italian olive oil that we find particularly delightful. The bottles were square when we first bought them. Now the bottles are round. But the Styrofoam packaging has always had round holes.

Why? Likely price. But I don't really know. Good thing my engineering school accepted the ACT

Ann Althouse said...

"Simon Winchester writes fascinating books. The Map That Changed The World is the most recent that I've read; The Professor and the Madman, Land, and The Perfectionists, are others."

Yes, and he does an excellent job on the audiobook narration.

The ones I've read are "The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary," "The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary," "A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906," and "The Men Who United the States: America's Explorers, Inventors, Eccentrics and Mavericks, and the Creation of One Nation, Indivisible."

Ann Althouse said...

I've seen boxed water and boxed wine, but they seem sort of unappetizing. So I think the question is why we have this particular preference for boxed milk. Maybe something about distancing ourselves from the natural reality of what we are doing: udderfeeding.

Ann Althouse said...

I'm guessing the point is to show composition skills and some sort of facility with synthesizing ideas. Do they value creativity and humor?

Dave Begley said...

John Henry

The ChiComs stole all of Boeing’s IP for its new jet. And we do nothing.

Narr said...

"The Man Who Loved China" is another excellent Winchester title. (His book about the Atlantic failed to grab me, but that's an exception among his works.)

I'm old enough to recall milk deliveries, sometimes (I'm morally certain) in round bottles.

If this sort of thing interests you, look at the history of the Jerrycan.

MikeD said...

At least they still have college entrance exams, an increasingly rare occurrence here.

Free Manure While You Wait! said...

在過去,方形的井蓋經常掉進去。到處都是哭聲,希望能找到解決辦法。 但沒有人能提供解決方案。 直到 1958 年,毛主席發揮了他的聰明才智,並在幾分鐘內證明了解決方案——圓形井蓋。 然後毛澤東對中國人民說,“敢想,敢做”。

Free Manure While You Wait! said...

"This is the sort of post that keeps me coming back."

Me too. For the most part, I ignore all of the political crap. That shit's everywhere.

tommyesq said...

Ditto the can lining. I was surprised to hear it would be worth going to the trouble of stealing.

From Chemical and Engineering News, April 26, 2021:

"Xiaorong (Shannon) You, formerly a senior R&D chemist at Coca-Cola and Eastman Chemical, has been convicted in Greeneville, Tennessee, of stealing trade secrets related to bisphenol A (BPA)–free beverage can liners. Prosecutors say You took intellectual property (IP) valued at $120 million from Coca-Cola and 7 chemical companies, intending to sell it to a Chinese polymer firm that was supported by government programs, including China’s controversial Thousand Talents Plan."

John henry said...

Ann, re preference for boxed milk

Up to the late 70s or so, milk was only available in gable top cartons and returnable glass and plastic bottles.

Gable top cartons came on the market in the late 30s as a disposable, easier to handle alternative to glass. These are made as individual cartons, shipping to the dairy where they are erected, filled and closed. For various reasons they will not work with sterile milk.

Tetrapak developed the aseptic milk/juice box. The material is 7 different layers, supplied on rolls. It is sterilized before forming and filling and sterilized milk is introduced and sealed under sterile (aseptic) conditions. This allows it to be shelf stable at room temperature until opened.

Pasturization kills harmful bacteria. Sterilization kills all bacteria.

There is no need of this in most products and packaging in plastic is usually cheaper.

John LGKTQ Henry

Ignorance is Bliss said...

Did you try this question as a ChatGPT prompt?

Free Manure While You Wait! said...

I've seen boxed water and boxed wine, but they seem sort of unappetizing."

I learned from my sister -- a fine wine executive for a global wine, beer and spirits distributor -- that the bulk of the wine the French consume is box wine. They put wine in bottles for export, because the market thinks wine should come in bottles. Mistakenly.

Once opened, box wine (technically bagged wine in a box) oxidizes much slower than bottled wine. A few years ago, she suggested I try a boxed French wine (I forget the brand name) and it was really quite good.

John henry said...

Fiji Water comes in square bottles with short necks.

It is bottled in Fiji so this reduces the wasted space between bottles reducing shipping costs.

Most water is in round bottles because they are easier to hold. As well as easier at all stages from molding to distribution.

John LGKTQ Henry

Big Mike said...

Back In the 1940s though early 1950s, when I was young, a milkman drove up to the house and delivered milk in bottles whose footprint was square with rounded corners — thus both round and square at the same time. Since he’d also pick up the empty bottles as part of the delivery service, one can argue that recycling is not a new phenomenon.

gspencer said...

Square stuff stacks better.

Temujin said...

I see I'm not alone. Though I've only read one book by Simon Winchester, it was a fascinating read. "Krakatoa: The day the world exploded, August 27, 1883".

I don't know anything about packaging, but when it comes to wine bottles, from The Wine Spectator: "Wine bottles—and glass bottles in general—were initially round because they were made by glassblowers, and that was the easiest shape to make and replicate. That’s also how the "punt," or indentation, at the bottom was created: Glassblowers pushed the seam up into the bottle to avoid sharp edges and to make sure it would stand up better. Before glassmaking techniques improved, the punt and the round shape improved the structural integrity of the bottle, which was particularly important for sparkling wines, which in centuries past were known to occasionally explode due to the pressure inside the bottle."

As for why do they keep using round bottles? At this point, the very shape of the bottle denotes the type of wine it is, the region, the grape, etc. Not in all cases in, but in most cases, certainly from Europe and California. Rieslings would be round, but long and tapered. Bordeaux's or Cabernets, or many Red Blends being very cylindrical, uniform up to the neck. Burgundies or Chardonnays/Pinot Noirs being a bit wider on the bottom, with a smooth tapering going up to the neck portion. These are standard shapes. If I saw a Napa Cab in a square bottle, I'd assume it's a fun joke of a wine and pass on it.

I don't care what shape my milk comes on.

Harun said...

Fiji water comes in a plastic square-ish bottle.

Probably blow molding very thin plastic means round bottles with some ribbing is most cost effective.

Mikey NTH said...

Milk jugs are square sided round cornered for the fact the contents are liquid and to stack easily in crates. Packaging is a science at the university level.

Josephbleau said...

Boxes are more efficient for use of space in shipping, unless the product weighs so much that the space can’t be filled due to a weight limit anyway. Round containers maximize volume and minimize surface area, so if glass is expensive you would use a round, or spherical container. I think milk containers are square because they are wax paper and a round one should be weak, if square the sides work in compression when a force is applied to the edge, round ones would buckle and possibly crack open.

The subtile philosophy comes in with design, designers will make less efficient shapes if they think they will be attractive.

When I grow up I want to be a large language model, so I can have no shame. I am practicing.

Mikey NTH said...

John Henry is correct about Canada, and the commenter (forgot the name) about certain bottle shapes used for marketing is also correct. Packaging is an art (sensory appeal) and a science (i.e., achieving your goal for the product with the least cost). Any airy-fairy philosophizing is a bonus to the advertising copy.

Mikey NTH said...

Of course with boxed wine you could use a decanter and appear very sophisticated and hoity-toity as you pour the Franzia.

BudBrown said...

What a great question. The kind of question that lets the children of important party members demonstrate their superior qualities that maybe didn't show up on the math portion of the exam.

Quaestor said...

Not always. There are obvious exceptions to every case cited in the essay.

This is not a philosophical question, it belongs primarily to the magesteria of engineering. There are sound practical reasons for the shapes of nearly every container, except for wine. Wine mostly comes in fragile and difficult-to-package cylindrical glass bottles because wine drinkers are essentially an unimaginative and hidebound lot of poseurs and bigots, which also explains their largely Democratic voting preference. What better refuge for a dull-witted zealot than the party of Joe Biden and Sam Brinton?

Owen said...

Love all the comments. I think thread-winner may be Mikey NTH @ 1:13: “…hoity-toity as you pour the Franzia.”

Jamie said...

Packaging is an art (sensory appeal) and a science (i.e., achieving your goal for the product with the least cost). Any airy-fairy philosophizing is a bonus to the advertising copy.

I wonder how an answer like this would be received. It's exactly correct - in packaging, I'm going to say especially when packaging liquids for consumption, you have to consider function first, and only then form - but if they wanted subtle philosophy, what would they think of coming right out and saying it?

Jake said...

But milk isn’t always in square boxes. I would refuse to answer.

Bob Boyd said...

I'm guessing it's because milk doesn't have to be in its container for very long so you can use a really cheap paper container, a box. These containers are made with folding so they're square. Can't make a very strong round one without making it more expensive and a round one would be harder to seal.
Wine, on the other hand, needs to be able to stay in its container for a long time.

Rusty said...

Free Manure While You Wait! said...
Italian table wine is moved around the country in barges.

Chip bags, (really any bag with an outer seam)' start as a flat roll of bag material as it is processed through the packaging machine the sides are rolled over and a lip is made. WShen the lips meet they are heat sealed and the bottom of the bag is sealed as well. The chips or whatever are in itroduced and the top is then sealed.

In the Musee des Arts et Meteirs in Paris is the machine that changed the world. It is the first purpose built screw cutting lathe.

gadfly said...

Why aren't hot dogs and hot dog buns made to the same length?

Originally, hot dogs were made by stuffing beef and/or pork trimmings into intestine or cellulose casings back in the day in NYC, but when hot dogs were sized to run in automated equipment, suddenly skinless wieners were formed to be the same size. But through it all, bakeries baked in four-wide bun pans that somehow couldn't be made to fit the franks. To add insult to injury, the number of hot dogs per package is rarely the same as the number of buns packaged together in the bread aisle.

gadfly said...

Why aren't hot dogs and hot dog buns made to the same length?

Originally, hot dogs were made by stuffing beef and/or pork trimmings into intestine or cellulose casings back in the day in NYC, but when hot dogs were sized to run in automated equipment, suddenly skinless wieners were formed to be the same size. But through it all, bakeries baked in four-wide bun pans that somehow couldn't be made to fit the franks. To add insult to injury, the number of hot dogs per package is rarely the same as the number of buns packaged together in the bread aisle.

gadfly said...

I beg your pardon. Milk from dairy plants is bottled in plastic containers with rounded edges. No square edges since federal milk prices put more expensive coated cardboard containers to sleep. But we can save the world from plastic by going back to glass bottles but then we would then likely run out of sand to make glass. So the question could become: Do we want glass or plastic in landfills? Neither will burn or disintegrate.

Rusty said...

Gadfly.
My dairy products come in waxed carboard containers with a nifty plastic spigot built in. For easy pouring. Glass bottles are expensive to manufacture and don't recycle well. Very little glass is actually recycled. Most of it ends up in landfills. Same with plastics. We're just returning the petroleum back into the earth. Just in a different form.
Here's an idea(remember you heard it here first) Milk in aluminum jugs. Refillable and recyclable.

Josephbleau said...

“I beg your pardon. Milk from dairy plants is bottled in plastic containers”

I beg your pardon, this is a question from China, specifically stating that milk is in square containers, do you think the US is the only country in the world? That’s kind of mean.

PM said...

Begley @ 6:17 almost sprayed Coke on my keyboard.

Rusty said...

Milk is stored in cows.
Which are cow shaped.