In which I can’t quite say something more about bricks


I don’t want it to sound like all I’m thinking of these days is that The Story Of Brick book from the American Face Brick Association. I bet the American Face Brick Association itself thinks I’m making too big a deal of it. “Look, it’s just not that important a thing. We wrote it when we were feeling all defensive about people’s bad estimates of the cost of brick faces. It’s not like we think it’s bad or anything, it’s just … you know, just this one book.” I bet they’re blushing.

If they’re even called the American Face Brick Association anymore. I just bet they went through that process where they reason, you know, face bricks aren’t all we do. There’s also slates and stones. So then they go adding that to make the name the American Face Brick, Slate, and Stone Association. And then someone points out they know a guy in Toronto. And someone else knows that guy too and he’s fun to have at their conventions. So then it becomes the American and Canadian Face Brick, Slate, and Stone Association briefly. Then someone reminds them it’s 1936 and Newfoundland isn’t part of Canada yet, and they explore calling it the American and Canadian and Newfoundlanderian thing before settling on “North American”. And then someone finds other stuff you can put in front of houses and they don’t want to list all that. So we get the North American Building Coverings Association. Then some consultant tells them that a geographic designator is too old-fashioned so it becomes the Building Coverings Association. Then you get to where it seems all fancy to have a clipped, shortened name and it turns into the BuiCovAssoc, or as it’s finally known, the Association. Except on the front of their building they still have the “American and Canadian Face Brick, Slate, and Stone Association” because they can’t agree who gets to engrave the new name.

But even with the break in the heat wave I’ve needed things to think about that are easy and comforting. And I know it’s hard to think of bricks as comforting. It’s also hard not to notice you can rearrange the words in that last sentence and get one at least as good. “And I know it’s comforting to think of bricks as hard.” That’s reassuring in these trying times. “And I think it’s hard as comforting bricks to know of.” That one turns out to have extra words, unless we happen to know someone named “Of” who’s inscrutable. We might. We know all sorts of people, I can’t know things like what to call them.

Daft? Yes. This is daft. But it’s better I worry about this than I worry about the kitchen light fixture. That stopped working the other day. You’d think the answer would be “put in a new light bulb”. No. First, the fixture has this ceramic dome on it that’s connected by I don’t know what. It’s some metal clip contraption that’s holding on to it more securely than my car holds on to its engine. I can kind of tug one clip a little out of the way. But it’s not enough to take the cover off, and I can’t move two clips at a time unless I go up there with more arms than I have.

Photograph of some strange long cylindrical tube that's wired into the ceiling. Its cover is glass or similar transparent material and it's got several lightly scored circles and parallel lines to make it look the more like a science fiction movie prop.
I don’t know what this is or what repairing it is like except that I know with a certainty ordinarily possible only for mathematical truths that it will not be good.

Also inside I can see there isn’t a light bulb. There’s just this … thing. It’s a long skinny cylinder with a couple of scratch marks on it that look like they’re supposed to be on there. It looks like a warp core’s reactor. I don’t know why we’ve been getting light from a small warp reactor. I also don’t want to know what kind of problems with space and time having this thing in the house has been causing. I think this might explain how last week I dropped eight cents on the floor, and heard the nickel and all three pennies hit the floor, and every one of them vanished. This was while the light was still working, too. I’m not upset about losing the eight cents. I’m worried that this loose change has gone and popped into the Neutral Zone and maybe been given superpowers by an alien planet of coin-based life forms, and it’ll head back to Earth zapping starships and planets and whole galaxies into a little coin-collector’s book jacket.

Anyway I probably have more thoughts about that book but I don’t remember now. Sorry.

Everything There Is To Say About The History Of Technology Companies


Technology companies usually go through a couple distinct phases. There’s the one that gets all the fun legends. That’s the step where a small team of like-minded idealists realize they’ve been gathering in a garage workshop for like four years now and finally have a salable product. This is a thrilling moment. It comes none too soon, since the garage’s owner nearly caught them last time. It’s all fun adventures. First there’s the challenge of getting something to work. Then there’s the challenge of getting it to work when they just moved it to the other table. It’s not even four feet away from where it was. It’s a computer program. What is there even to break? But that’s solved. Then there’s the challenge of getting it to work for anybody else. Everyone agrees this is the good part of any technology company.

Much later comes the phase where the company has lots of employees. This means that they can worry about different issues. Like, there’s worrying about how to get the right ice cream cake for the birthday party for the person who’s out sick today anyway. There is no right answer, which is all right. This phase usually comes after the one where the staff realizes they’ve got something with a name like “zMyRiLX System Service Provider” on the servers. It’s critically important. They’ve upgraded that to a version nobody knows how to set up anymore. It isn’t even the current version. The old version, someone had poked with sticks enough that it didn’t break anything too important. This new version has taken away the sticks. It all seems hopeless. This is when we move on to the birthday ice cream cake phase.

There are intermediate stages too. For example, after creating the first product, there’s the question of what to make as the fifteenth product. This will be the thing you had wanted to be the third product and that never really came together. It will flop. No technology company has ever had its fifteenth product succeed. The best they can hope is that it’s seen as ahead of its time, and a noble failure. The most innovative technology companies fail in ways that other companies hope will fail for them in ten years.

Technology companies have issues that are unique to the industry. Like, a company that rakes leaves doesn’t have to worry about digital rights management. They just have to worry that employees aren’t spending all their time having light saber fights with the rakes. At least until a technology company comes in and screws things up. At that point, though, it doesn’t rake leaves anymore. The name will change from, say, Pine River Lawn Care to something that sounds like a medication or an 80s boys’ cartoon villain. Chloronax, say, or Verderant. At that point it doesn’t do anything. It just updates databases. Those databases contain mean stuff said about you.

Some technology company problems are common to every company. Like, when should they mistakenly not diversify? Eventually people forget why they needed whatever the company’s old products were. But the other choice a company has is to mistakenly diversify. This is a fun one because whatever it is you’re doing, it seems more fun to do something else. So going from one business into another always seems like a great idea. Eventually your company can be so diverse that it doesn’t do anything, but does it in a lot of fields. Then you should be ready to suddenly collapse in one of those fascinating yet boring business implosions, and re-emerge years later as a snarky Twitter account.

So what’s the right course? Hard to say. You can read histories of companies in similar circumstances. This will show how for every course of action there’s at least four other companies that did that and were so very wrong. The conclusion is to just not do anything, really. This explains that time in 1968 when, facing the rise of Electronic Data Systems, Remington-Rand just spent August rolling down a hill.

The best guidance is to look up the history written several decades after the company goes out of business and sent back in time to you. When you come across a chapter with an ominous title like “The Fateful Choice” read very carefully and try not making that choice. This might create a logical paradox destroying time and space, but perhaps the book was wrong anyway.

Thingy Careers At Apple


I have another bunch of mathematically-themed comic strips reviewed over on my other blog that I’d like you to read, if you would. I’m aware that’s pretty soon after the last time I collected such a bunch of comics so there isn’t really a quite mad enough edition of Mell Lazarus’s Momma to highlight here, though I will say the dialogue of Wednesday’s strip is kind of weird.

Anyway, since I don’t have another comic strip I feel like showing off, I’d like to mention something I learned from that Caption This! thingy from Star Trek VI earlier this week, and that is: Apple’s spelling dictionary recognizes the word “thingamabob”. It also recognizes “thingumabob” as an equally good spelling of the word. It does not respect “thingimabob” or “thingemabob”, and it makes an audible yicking noise at “thingomabob”, even though that last one seems at least as plausible to me as “thingumabob”.

From this I must conclude that either someone at Apple decided of her own initiative that the `a’ and `u’ spellings of “thing*mabob” were acceptable while the `i’, `e’, and `o’ ones were right out, or else there was at least one staff meeting in which the matter was debated and decided. And I so hope they took minutes which will someday be available to corporate biographers.

Meanwhile I’m so glad I went with “thingamabob” instead of “doohickey” for the caption because otherwise how might I have discovered all this?

It’s Somebody’s Business


The history of a company usually has distinct phases, like the step where a small team of like-minded idealists with skills in an exciting new technology realize they’ve been coming to a garage workshop garage for four years now and have almost completed a salable product none too soon because the owner of the garage almost caught them last time. And then there’s a stage where everybody gets quite tense about selecting the right sort of cake for the birthday party for someone who’s out sick anyway. It wasn’t the right day anyway. And then there are also all intermediate stages like deciding what to make for their fifteenth product, and deciding that the company logo has to be redone so it’s at an angle. It can make for fascinating reading to follow all these stages. I plan to do so by putting the logo at an angle and changing its typeface to something sans serif that badly imitates handwriting.