March 5, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
Our ongoing quest to personify the weather.
As I write this, the ominously named Winter Storm Thor is bringing his hammer down on the tristate area. Thor is pelting. Thor is dumping. Thor is lashing, coating, and causing havoc. He has an image problem, as all storms do, these days. Led by the heedless call of the Weather Channel, the media has depicted Thor—like Juno, Neptune, and others before him—as a creature of blind wrath, fueled by an amoral, motiveless lust for destruction. If you believe in the banality of evil, then Winter Storm Thor belongs with Eichmann and Iago in your rogues’ gallery.
The Weather Channel has named winter storms since 2012, as part of a dumb and widely impugned media strategy that sensationalizes the weather in a shameless bid for more clicks. “The previous model was: How does weather affect you?” Neil Katz, who runs Weather.com, told The New Republic last year. “Now we’re really asking: How does weather affect everything in the world?” By becoming the very embodiment of vengeance, is one answer. Read More »
January 13, 2015 | by Damion Searls
Sir Thomas Wyatt’s “They Flee From Me” and the history of the word deserve.
The best I-just-got-dumped pop song ever, beating out such classics as “Wild World,” “Don’t You Want Me,” “Nothing Compares 2 U,” “You Oughta Know,” and “Irreplaceable,” is six hundred years old: Sir Tom’s “Runaway,” known to poets and scholars as “They Flee From Me” by Thomas Wyatt. You can read the original lyrics here (old spelling, modern spelling), but the structure and arc couldn’t be simpler: three verses, no chorus.
- Wait, what? They used to come running after me.
- Especially this one girl. Man, she was so hot.
- It’s true. Now she won’t even talk to me. I must have been too nice.
At least she’ll get her comeuppance: “But since that I so kindly am served / I would fain know what she hath deserved.”
To paraphrase: since she was so nice to me (sarcastic!)—and/or the now-obsolete meaning: since she treated me so in keeping with her kind, just the way you’d expect her to act (that bitch!)—I’d like to know what she has coming. The strange word to modern ears is the last one. Doesn’t the singer already know what she deserves, just not what she’s going to get? Read More »
November 4, 2014 | by Damion Searls
How our coins got their names.
Election Day is here again, and I know there are some single-issue voters out there who haven’t forgotten an issue of our time that Congress has repeatedly failed to act on, despite the introduction of bills HR 3761 in 1989, HR 2528 in 2001, and HR 5818 in 2006. President Obama has stated that he is in favor—the lobbyists for outnumber the lobbyists against—and yet the Price Rounding Act, the Legal Tender Modernization Act, and the Currency Overhaul for an Industrious Nation (COIN) Act, respectively, have all failed to pass. As a nation, we have yet to abolish the penny.
A penny costs more to produce than it is worth (even after the 1982 change from a 95 percent copper composition to 97.5 percent zinc), so the U.S. loses tens of millions of dollars a year minting them; the sheer cost of lost time spent hunting for pennies, waiting in line behind someone else hunting for pennies, and disposing of pointless pennies once we have them has been estimated at as high as a billion dollars a year. No coin in U.S. history has ever been worth less than a penny is today, by a long shot: the half cent, eliminated in 1857, was worth more than a dime in today’s buying power. A penny saved may be a penny earned, but it is about two seconds of income for an average American, so who cares. Yet again, the Ben Franklin for our time turns out to be Andy Warhol: “I hate PENNIES. I wish they’d stop making them altogether. I would never save them. I don’t have the time. I like to say in stores, ‘Oh forget it, keep those pennies. It makes my French wallet too heavy.’ ”
One thing we’ll lose, when the penny eventually goes the inevitable way of the half cent and the Canadian penny (extinct as of 2012), is the last possible link between our language of money and the everyday physical world. Read More »
September 5, 2014 | by Vikram Chandra
This is what ugly code looks like. This is a dependency diagram—a graphic representation of interdependence or coupling (the black lines) between software components (the gray dots) within a program. A high degree of interdependence means that changing one component inside the program could lead to cascading changes in all the other connected components, and in turn to changes in their dependencies, and so on. Programs with this kind of structure are brittle, and hard to understand and fix. This dependency program was submitted anonymously to TheDailyWTF.com, where working programmers share “Curious Perversions in Information Technology” as they work. The exhibits at TheDailyWTF are often embodiments of stupidity, of miasmic dumbness perpetrated by the squadrons of sub-Mort programmers putting together the software that runs businesses across the globe. But, as often, high-flying “enterprise architects” and consultants put together systems that produce dependency diagrams that look like this renowned TheDailyWTF exhibit. A user commented, “I found something just like that blocking the drain once.”
If that knot of tangled hair provokes disgust, what kind of code garners admiration? In the anthology Beautiful Code, the contribution from the creator of the popular programming language Ruby, Yukihiro “Matz” Matsumoto, is an essay titled “Treating Code as an Essay.” Matz writes:
Judging the attributes of computer code is not simply a matter of aesthetics. Instead, computer programs are judged according to how well they execute their intended tasks. In other words, “beautiful code” is not an abstract virtue that exists independent of its programmers’ efforts. Rather, beautiful code is really meant to help the programmer be happy and productive. This is the metric I use to evaluate the beauty of a program.
July 15, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
The hidden poetry of industrial-supply catalogs.
When I was nine or ten, riding in the backseat of my mom’s car as we drove the gauntlet of strip malls, car dealerships, big-box stores, and fast-food franchises that constituted our suburb’s commercial district, I realized that all of the tall signs and buildings had been constructed and erected by actual people, different crews of people. I thought about all the Burger King and Mattress Discounters signs in the world, how each had been shipped from somewhere, delivered to someone, received, assembled, mounted, electrified. I attributed a lot of power and reach to corporations, especially those that advertised on TV, and to understand that they comprised real people was something of an epiphany—especially in suburbia, where corporate authority rests in the illusion that no human labor has gone into transforming and homogenizing the landscape. All the stores were just there. What else could there be?
That moment is part of what informs my fascination with the Grainger catalog, a massive, 4,322-plus page industrial-supply inventory with which I first became acquainted last year, when a friend gave it to me for my birthday. Released annually on February 1, it’s an omnibus of 590,000 products—power tools, fasteners, pneumatics, hydraulics, pumps, raw materials, janitorial necessities, HVAC and refrigeration components—a work of pure utility, designed, honed, and focus-grouped to provide ready access to its most arcane sections. I can’t get enough of it. For the uninitiated, it provides a glimpse at the invisible infrastructure girding the world of construction, maintenance, repair, and operations. Grainger’s aggressively salt-of-the-earth slogan is “For the Ones Who Get It Done,” and the joy of perusing its catalog is in seeing how very many things there are to get done, and how many ways we have of doing them.
And so I often reach for it in pursuit of a kind of materialist awe. It makes for a reading experience more engaging, imaginative, and informative than almost anything that passes as literature. I’ve put down novels to pick up the Grainger catalog, which holds court on my coffee table and which could, in a pinch, serve as a coffee table unto itself.
Grainger sells mail-room organizers, carpet deodorizers, hairnet dispensers, and gutter-deicing cables. They sell a three-stage, heavy-traffic floor-matting system designed to entrap heavy debris. They sell miniature high-precision stainless-steel ball bearings with extended inner rings. They sell 550-foot rolls of foam for protecting electronics and an oil-filtration system for high-viscosity fluids. Their catalog contains a proliferation of heavily modified nouns that denote things I never knew existed, or things I’d intuited to exist, but had never really considered.
Metalized polyester film tape.
GMP/GLP data output moisture analyzers.
Electrostatic dissipative (ESD) gloves.
Cup point alloy steel socket set screws. Read More »
July 7, 2014 | by Damian Fowler
The varying temperaments of British and American storytelling.
In 1890, a thirty-seven-year-old Scot named James F. Muirhead arrived in America with the intention of carrying out an extensive survey of the republic for the “Baedeker’s Handbook to the United States.” Muirhead spent the next three years traveling to almost every state and territory in the Union, approaching his vast subject matter with none of the condescension often expressed by Victorian Englishmen of the era. In 1898 he published The Land of Contrasts—A Briton’s View of His American Kin, which he considered to be a “tribute of admiration and gratitude.” His colorful chapter headings show the range of his interests: “An Appreciation of the American Woman,” “Sports and Amusements,” “American Journalism—A Mixed Blessing,” and “Some Literary Straws.”
In that last chapter, Muirhead attempts to throw some light upon the “respective literary tastes of the Englishman and the American.” While he notes the grammatical wrongness of the American idiom—at least to his ear—in phrases such as “a long ways off” or “In a voice neither could scare hear,” he is most interested in “the tone, the temper, the method, the ideals” of an American writer. He singles out William Dean Howells—who challenged American authors to choose American subjects—as “purely and exclusively American, in his style as in his subject, in his main themes as in his incidental illustrations, in his spirit, his temperament, his point of view.”
But what does it mean to have an American point of view? Muirhead keeps trying to put his finger on this elusive quality: “Mr. Howells … possesses a bonhomie, a geniality, a good-nature veiled by a slight mask of cynicism, that may be personal, but which strikes one as also a characteristic American trait.” And then: “To me Mr. Howells, even when in his most realistic and sordid vein, always suggests the ideal and the noble.” Read More »