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 wonders 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 »
June 6, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
Late in 2007, a poet and programmer named Adam Parrish started @everyword, a Twitter account dedicated to tweeting all the words in English. The very first tweet, from 6:53 A.M. on September 2, 2007, seems to have been blasphemous, but after that came a, and things settled into a familiar alphabetical rhythm.
In the days of the early letters, we felt footloose and fancy-free. It seemed, for a while, that the dictionary and its roughly 109,000 entries would last us for the rest of our natural lives. Years passed. Words came and went at a stately pace. The most retweeted among them were sex and weed, those poles of the human condition.
But things took on a sudden urgency earlier this year when x, y, and z came around. None of us felt young anymore—we were living in the twilight of the alphabet, suddenly, acutely aware of our own mortality. @everyword, once a fixture of the Twittersphere, was soon to be snuffed out by Fate, as we all must be. As of this writing, zoril, zounds, and zoysia have just been tweeted, each one a harbinger of doom. The last word is expected to go up this weekend, if not later today. (One never knows exactly when Death’s cold, tenebrous hand will descend upon one’s shoulder.)
In an interview earlier this week, Parrish told The Guardian,
Whimsy is something that I'm very interested in evoking in people. I don’t like the concept of personalization on the web. When I get on the Internet it’s because I want to have a shared experience. I want to see what other people see. The Internet is a way to find out what life is like for other people. One of the goals of the stuff I make is to produce these experiences, and not sell you something, which is what a lot of the Internet is about these days.
Excellent points, but as the end beckons, whimsy is on the wane. (Or not—it was just tweeted a month ago.) Parrish never discussed why he chose to begin his series with blasphemous, but it augurs ill for us, now that we’re in the end-times. Has he been courting Satan with his word spells? Twitter’s eschatologists are predicting the apocalypse. What will happen when the final word goes up? Is there life after zed—or, more accurately, after zyxt?
May 30, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
In 1893, George Edward Dartnell and the Reverend Edward Hungerford Goddard published Glossary of Wiltshire Words—it is, as intuitive readers will have guessed, a glossary of words used in the county of Wiltshire. The “Folk-speech,” as the authors call it, is full of evocative terms, some of them familiar—jumble and caterpillar—and others entirely puzzling. (Evidence suggests that Wiltshire residents were often puzzled; they have about three dozen words for the condition.) The best entries tend to be common words with new definitions. Smart, for instance, used to mean “a second swarm of bees”; goggles was “a disease in sheep.”
Here are a few of the most novel words with annotations from the authors. Read More »