Explaining Vacuum Cleaners


If I were to ask what you thought vacuum cleaners were I expect your first response would be to wonder if you’d heard the question right. It seems like a strange thing to ask. You probably can’t figure why I would need to know this about you. Let’s suppose it was someone else who asked you the question. You’d want to know who it asked you. For convenient let’s suppose it was Frederick J Lawton, Harry Truman’s director of the Bureau of the Budget from 1950 to 1953, and that the question was issued in 1952. It’s your business what you’re doing in 1952 and falls outside the scope of my article.

We forget that vaccuum cleaners used to be people, not machines. The first vacuum cleaner was a now-anonymous assistant to Evangelista Torricelli. His name was removed in 1964 as proof emerged he had bet on baseball games. The great physicist (Torricelli) had in 1643 poured mercury into a tube sealed at one end and then turned the tube upside-down. This produced a perfect vacuum at the top of the tube and a perfect mess at the bottom of the tube and all over the table. Naturally Torricelli ordered the cleaning of the table, the tube, and as long as he was at it, the vacuum, which just looked perfectly adroit. I say “adroit” to tease science-major types who were waiting for me to use a different word beginning with ‘a’ there. I’ve got some self-awareness. The word was “adiabatic”. But with a few quick sweeps of a damp cloth the assistant had created a new profession.

Vacuum cleaning, done then by people, was regarded for ages as an affectation for the scholarly classes, who needed the affection. For much of the 17th century it was nearly as popular as making up grammatical rules or wearing caps and gowns everywhere. Scholars didn’t need a passport even when travelling between nations at war; a well-tidied and dust-free vacuum was their standing invitation to the world of letters that existed beyond mere mortal politics. It was not until the reign of France’s King Louis XV (there was no Louis XV, but he was hastily inserted when the French realized they had gone right from Louis XIV to Louis XVI and once you learned enough Roman numerals it looked funny to have the number laying about there un-Louised) that it made the social jump from the laboratory to the royal court. While doing so it slipped on the windowsill and suffered a sore ankle for months, with relapses when a cold front was moving in.

The post of Royal Vacuum Cleaner was soon established. With that, they needed assistants, keepers, letters-go, attendants, absentias, abstainers, the follow who owned the mop, the keeper of the mop, the fetcher of the mop, the keeper of the fetcher, the fetcher of the keeper, the assistant fetcher of the keeper, the keeper of the assistant fetcher, and so on, and that’s even before getting into the buckets issue or who would provide water for the cleaning of the vacuum and assistants thereof. Within a generation, vacuum cleaning at Versailles involved over 52,006 people. You can understand the scandal when in 1722 someone noticed they didn’t have any vacuums.

But then scholars argued the absence of any vacuums was itself a vacuum, this in the property of vacuum-ness. Therefore the vacuum which should be cleaned was the vacuum of vacuums to be cleaned. This argument may not be logically sound, but they were good at going on about it at such length that any disputants would have to sit down until their heads stopped spinning. If you don’t sympathize I have another 150 words that I cut from this paragraph because they made my sinuses hurt.

This all being a lot of good fun it had to come to an end, of course. So it did in 1867 thanks to one Ives W McGaffney of Chicago, Illinois, as there were not two of him. With dedication and ingenuity he put together a hand-cranked vacuum cleaner which all the people who’d had respectable enough lives cleaning vacuums professionally naturally hated. But he persisted and with the coming of power to private homes, mechanical vacuum cleaners would take over the public’s imagination for this sort of thing in fewer than 82 years. Today we just assume that a “vacuum cleaner” is a machine and not a profession, or even an aspiration. Is that not always the way? Yes, unless I mean no.

Another Blog, Meanwhile Index

All right, so the Belgian-cricket-eating bubble is apparently just going to carry on, with the index rising another six points on this thing that will not happen and everybody should stop pretending that it would. No, we don’t care what documentation you have proving that it’s so a thing. It is not a thing.

221

What Socks Needed


I was going about my business minding it as best as I’m able and then Salon dropped this headline on me:

Researchers fashion self-healing clothing — out of squid teeth

Here I had been almost ready finally go to learning about the history of socks and now they’re giving me some self-healing squid-toothed socks? Thank you, no, I have a list of garments I will allow to be squid-toothed and they are all squid mouth costumes. I’m assuming here squids have mouths. If they don’t, and they have teeth anyway, I do not want to know about it and I will refuse to hear if you carry on anyway.

The subheadline warns self-healing squid-tooth clothing “can be produced on easily and on the cheap, but don’t expect to see them on shelves any time soon”. I agree. We will be seeing them in nightmares to come for years now, that’s something, but not shelves. They’ll be sneaking up on us in the bathtub if I know anything about squid. I don’t know anything about squid, except that I stopped eating calamari a long while ago because no matter how good someone promised it was going to be, it tasted and felt like that. And there’s no point my putting the octopus or squid to that kind of hassle for an experience I’m not going to enjoy either. But I have enjoyed the experience of wearing clothes on many occasions, in fact every occasion including during showers. I don’t want that messed with.

Once Again InfoWorld Leaves The Real Story Untold


I am on a daily mailing list of information-technology-related news references for a good reason which I do not know. I don’t know when I signed up for it or why. But it’s interesting just often enough I don’t feel like unsubscribing. For example, here’s something from yesterday’s mailing. It’s a real page-turner of an article about plans for more frequent but smaller updates to the official Javascript standards. That’s the computer language that makes it possible for every web page to take forever to load, and then stuff grows and shrinks when you’re just trying to read a freaking paragraph already. Also it lets people argue whether Javascript is properly speaking a language right before you stop talking to them forever. I was just amazed to learn there were standards for Javascript. I had never suspected it followed any rules. But according to the end of Paul Krill’s article:

Sometimes, a feature can get a thumbs-up for inclusion and then be cast aside. This happened with object.observe, for observation of changes to objects. It had been planned for inclusion this year but was withdrawn due to a change in the technical circumstances around it.

(I should explain for non-programmers what they mean by objects here. They mean “objects” in the computer sense. It’s not anything like a real-world object, such as the “buttery cream spread” that fast food places give you to smear on a potato or a biscuit. A computer programming “object” is an imaginary thingy that programs can make do stuff or have properties. Whereas “buttery cream spread” is just a promise that this is a thing with mass and color and a kind-of-definite shape, which you can place into your mouth and consume if you think that’s going to make you any happier. To computer programmers this would be an “interface”, which is a kind of object that is even more imaginary.)

And Krill just leaves that point there, as if it were enough. What change in “technical circumstances” could have removed the need for an object-change-observation feature? For that matter, what’s a “technical circumstance”? More to the point, what isn’t a “technical circumstance”? I suppose it wouldn’t be a “technical circumstance” if they were all set for the object-change-observation procedure announcement and then they couldn’t get on stage because an offended cow blocked the hallway. That would be more of a “natural correction”, of the problem that they couldn’t just go down the hallway? No, not if the cow was offended enough to chase after them. But I bet the cow would be offended about how the feature was supposed to be implemented, so there we go right back to a “technical circumstance”.

I bet the “technical circumstances” excuse was a cover. And that it all goes back to announcing the feature. I figure it was like when you decide you’re going to give your book report presentation by bringing in a cute puppet and having it describe the book from the perspective of a cow that witnessed most of the story. And then you run into the “technical problem” that the day of the presentation you get Doing Something Novel Stage Fright. That’s like normal stage fright, plus you’re scared everyone will laugh at you forever. And even though everybody would love you for doing the only non-boring presentation ever you chicken out.

So you abandon the puppet at the last minute. And forget that you wrote your script in character. So you have to stagger on reading it with one or two lines done in kind of a funny-ish voice when you kind of remember the gimmick. So you just feel terrible all through it and for weeks after, and everybody else is bored except when they’re confused. I bet this is what happened to the object.observe Javascript feature change proposal. They were all set to add this thing that I guess would have helped somebody with their objects that need observation and they got scared. “Technical circumstances” indeed.

But what puppet would they have planned to read about a Javascript object method feature change? My guess: the Folkmanis hand ostrich. He’s totally got the right body type for it, what with having a great beak that flaps around well and having wings you can slip a hand into for that Muppet-scratching-the-chin thoughtful effect. It would’ve been great if they hadn’t got scared.

I hope this answers all questions you had about why there isn’t a standardized method for the observation of changes in Javascript objects. You’re welcome.

Statistics Saturday: Twenty Books About Things That Changed The World


  • Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World, Mark Kurlansky.
  • Banana: the Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World, Dan Koeppel.
  • Symbols of Power: Ten Coins that Changed the World, Robert Bracey, Thomas Hockenhull.
  • In Pursuit of the Unknown: 17 Equations that Changed the World, Ian Stewart.
  • Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World, Margaret MacMillan.
  • Tambora: The Eruption that Changed the World, Gillian D’Arcy Wood.
  • Heroic Leadership: Best Practices from a 450-Year-Old Company that Changed the World, Chris Lowney.
  • Legends, Icons, and Rebels: Music that Changed the World, Robbie Robertson, Jim Guerinot.
  • Indigo: The Color that Changed the World, Catherine Legrand.
  • Island on Fire: The Extraordinary Story of a Forgotten Volcano that Changed the World, Alexandra Witze, Jeff Kanipe.
  • Tea: A History of the Drink that Changed the World, John C Griffiths.
  • Moment of Battle: The Twenty Clashes that Changed the World, Jim Lacey, Williamson Murra.
  • Franklin and Winston: A Christmas that Changed the World, Douglas Wood, Barry Moser.
  • Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B Anthony: A Friendship that Changed the World, Penny Colman.
  • Mauve: How one Man Invented a Color that Changed the World, Simon Garfield.
  • Napoleon’s Hemorrhoids: And Other Small Events that Changed the World, Phil Mason.
  • Gunpowder: Alchemy, Bombards, and Pyrotechnics: The History of the Explosive that Changed the World, Jack Kelly.
  • The Beatles: Six Days that Changed the World, Bill Eppridge, Adrienne Aurichio.
  • Tea: The Drink that Changed the World, Laura C Martin.
  • Nasdaq: A History of the Market that Changed the World, Mark Ingebretsen.

Not listed: The Map that Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology, Simon Winchester.

Also counting the Winchester I’ve read at least seven of these. That Alexandra Witze and Jeff Kanipe volcano book wasn’t about Tambora, don’t be silly.

I Am Too Good To Call This A Shocking Discovery


It was just something I glanced at on the highway, since I was more busy driving than looking at thing on the side. But it was a banner announcing The Battery Show 2015: The Expo For Advanced Batteries. I must admit that doesn’t sound like a thrilling convention topic. It’s got to be less photogenic than a science fiction convention is, and have fewer chances for a good rousing fight than a panel on education reform would. But I suddenly very much wanted to go.

No luck, alas. The show ran the 15th through the 17th, so I just missed a chance to “launch new products, make new contacts and maintain existing relationships” in a global battery industry-related context. And I know this sounds like some of the purest snark to be found outside people asking what the heck is wrong with the characters in the comic strip Luann. But, honest. The web site says “The Battery Show is America’s biggest free-to-attend exhibition for advanced batteries”, which has to make whoever’s in third place feel crummy. And I’d really like to have seen what takes up three days’ worth of convention space.

Well, the web site offers the Latest News, including headlines like “Thermotron Battery Chambers with Added Safety” — your choice what the verb there is! — and “Targray Announces Electrodeposited Nickel Foil For Lithium Ion…” and there’s no bad way that sentence can end. I hope I remember this for next September and get to see what Thermotron and Targray are up to by then.

You Won’t Believe What I’m Reading Now


I am in some ways never happier than when I’m in a library. It’s just a natural place for me, somewhere it makes sense for me to be, and I think anyone who knows me would agree that if I were to shed all my worldly possessions and set up camp somewhere not particularly needed by other people, like around the oversized, falling-apart books about motorcycles, they would say they kind of saw that coming.

Among other problems I have terrible impulse control in libraries, and will notice books and decide that if someone went to the bother of writing it there must be something interesting worth reading in it, and, well, what I’m saying is this is why I borrowed Pasta and Noodle Technology, a collection of papers and monographs on the title subject published by the American Association of Cereal Chemists, edited by James E Kruger, Robert B Matsuo, and Joel W Dick. And the book was published in 1996, so it’s not even a book about the current state of pasta and noodle technology, but is instead about the state of pasta and noodle technology from the days when having an online community devoted to Spaghetti-o’s was just the distant dream of some madmen in alt.fan.pasta. What I’m saying is I think I need librarians to save me from myself.

While I Was Watching Some History Channel-Type Show


I’m not sure what the program was. It was just on. They were talking about string. They asserted it was one of the keystones of human evolution, one of the things that sets humans apart from the animals, besides our ability — almost never seen in the animal kingdom — to lose our keys by leaving them in the microwave oven. They found a professor to say that the development of string was one of the things which enabled humans to dominate the world. And the thing is, they made a fair case for the proposition, because with string-based technologies such as clothes people could develop Abercrombie and Fitch stores.

And then, somehow, they came to this sentence — which I repeat as precisely as I’m able to, without exaggeration or distortion: “There is evidence of cheese from four thousand years ago.” I do not know why this sentence makes me smile, but the thought not just that there was evidence of cheese four thousand years ago, but that someone wrote and someone recorded the sentence, “There is evidence of cheese from four thousand years ago”, bids fair to make me happy for a long time to come. Probably not four thousand years.

I know what you’re thinking, but no, they said nothing about when they have evidence of string cheese.

Statistics Saturday for a Monday: July 2014 on This Humor Blog


And now to return to the very funny question of how well-read I was in the month of July. The answer is very well indeed: I had my most popular month on record according to WordPress. My total number of page views climbed from June’s 495 to fully 704, the highest on record, and the number of unique viewers rose from 181 to a just plain enormous for me 332. I’m stunned. There’s three months since I started the humor blog that didn’t have 332 views total, never mind unique viewers. (The views-per-visitor dropped from 2.73 to 2.12, but that’s still respectable, suggesting most folks who stop in find at least something else worth reading.) By the end of July I’d gotten a total of 7,187 pages read.

The countries sending me the most readers the past month were the United States (562), Australia (34), the United Kingdom (32), and Canada (20). I got only a single reader each from Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Indonesia, Kuwait, Mexico, Oman, the Philippines. Indonesia and the Philippines were single-reader countries last month too. And India, which I worried about for sending me just one reader in May and June, found three people who could find me not perfectly repellant in the past thirty days. That’s not so good on a per capita basis as Portugal (two readers), but, really, it’s an honor just to be nominated.

The five most popular postings this past month were:

  1. Questions Inspired By Great Science Fiction Covers of the Past, which involves a lot of Lyndon Johnson.
  2. From The Technology Centers That Brought You Towels, about a patent pending notice I saw.
  3. Five Astounding Facts About Turbo, That Movie About A Snail in The Indianapolis 500, always liked.
  4. Statistics Saturday: My Reactions To Everything After It’s Been Read, letting you know how much I like being liked, or not being liked, as the case may be.
  5. Theme Park Flashing from the Dream World, my subconscious giving out advice again.

I should say, though, there’s 21 different posts which got at least ten viewers the past month, which I believe is a high but I didn’t track that before. This is just something else I can start neurotically following, isn’t it?

Some popular search terms bringing people here include:

  • “ron|russell mael”
  • charles boyce compu-toon
  • captain future block that kick
  • mark twain a medieval romance
  • can a snail race in the indy 500 (people have got to be looking this up as a lark)
  • transdimensional dream other worlds
  • melies films with spider

How The 11:00 Conference Call Turns Out


10:45. You set your cell phone on the table. Turn it on. Stare at it anxiously.

10:55. Wonder if there’s enough time to read all of TrekBBS before the call starts.

11:00. Watch entire minute pass without the phone ringing.

11:01. Elation: you have avoided being called into the conference call. Elation gone when you remember they probably haven’t excused you from the call, they’re just saving up to have you be even more in the conference call.

11:04. Realize that you have a need to go to the bathroom more intense and more urgent than any other need you have ever felt in my life. It’s the way you might feel the need to move your foot if it were underneath the rear tire of a truck holding a lump of neutron star, although with less of the mass of three Jupiters pressing down on your foot and more a wondering if you could hear the phone from all the way in the bathroom.

11:10. Wonder if they’ve forgotten you.

11:15. Send e-mail to someone supposed to be in the conference call to see if they’ve forgotten you. Kind of hope that they have, except that might encourage ideas of maybe they don’t need you for non-conference-call things. Wonder if maybe you should’ve been running March Madness pools so they’d want you around for that at least. It’s desperately far from March. It’d look odd if you started talking up next year’s anytime before June 22nd. The conference call will probably be settled by then.

11:25. Phone rings. This call is to warn you the real call is running about a half-hour late but they didn’t want you to worry.

11:32. You’re worried.

11:38. It may be preferable to explode from bathroom-related needs than wait for the call.

11:40. They call. The conference call is starting, except two of the participants have to finish up other calls that have been going since the late Middle Ages. These calls are cherished, handed down from a long line of mid-level management, to be someday handed down to levels of mid-level management not yet imagined. They cannot be discharged or dismissed lightly. You might be on hold. Suddenly you appreciate hold music: listening to something you don’t want to listen to provides reassurance that you are remembered to exist by telephone systems that are not aware you exist.

11:43. Everyone is able to talk with everyone else and would like to explain how glad they are that everyone else is glad to be there, and doing well, and all agree that it’s been far too long since we had a chat like this, and we’re looking forward to the way we’ll smooth out a couple of little issues.

11:46. The conference call enters that condition of being pretty much the same as guiding your parents through updating their digital camera’s device drivers only your boss is listening in.

12:02. The phrase “the button marked SUBMIT in the upper right corner” is proven to be either intolerably vague or to not refer to anything the other people on the call have ever seen.

12:05. logmein is summoned.

12:07. Emergency e-mails to people who thought they were going to lunch already establish that logmein would have worked except we had the password wrong, the capitalization wrong, and some kind of domain thing wrong.

12:18. You apologize for needing to step away for a moment, which they take to mean that you need the bathroom, which you do, but you use the moment to step outside and berate a chipmunk who proves to have a perfectly good understanding of the limits of Ajax-enabled web technology blah blah blah and why yes, it does have to have Internet to work.

12:29. All agree this has been about the greatest and most productive conference call since the idea of communication began and we’ve done enough of it, and hang up before anyone can suggest otherwise.

1:04. You emerge from the curled-up ball of yourself that was underneath the table weeping.

2:45. You finish editing the things you needed to get out of the conference call into a series of four questions, e-mailed to the other main party, with the explanation you need to know which of the two options for each question they want before you can do anything.

Three Days Later, 9:15. The e-mail is returned with the note, “That’s great, exactly that! Thanx for understanding.”

Eight Days After That, 3:23. The suggestion is floated that maybe we just need one more conference call to sort it all out.

Some Autocomplete Joys of Life


This is one of those wonderful little things that really exists and that I just ran across. If you go to Google and type “www” into the search bar, it comes up with auto-complete suggestions of http://www.google.com, http://www.facebook.com, http://www.yahoo.com, and http://www.youtube.com. At least it does for me. I can’t explain why but the Yahoo auto-completion particularly makes me giggle. Enjoy!

Finley Peter Dunne: Machinery


I want to offer another bit from Observations By Mr. Dooley, this one a bit about the astounding progress in machinery that the late 19th century had brought, and the basic attitude feels to me pretty evergreen.

Mr. Dooley was reading from a paper.

“‘We live,’ he says, ‘in an age iv wondhers. Niver befure in th’ histhry iv th’ wurruld has such progress been made.’

Continue reading “Finley Peter Dunne: Machinery”

What Skeuomorphism Means to Me (it doesn’t)


I figured it was a good time to do some serious looking at this new OS X Mavericks and other stuff that Apple’s up to, because it’s all just come out and has finally got its visibility set to “yes”, and I’m in pretty urgent need of some click-bait. I’m bad enough at writing stuff people want to read that I still call it “click-bait”. I’m not sure anyone ever called it that, but I’m sure the people in the industry have a proper and more precise term for it, something like “isomorphic differentiable topological class structures”, because that’s the sort of phrase you never go looking for until you’re desperate for whatever the person using it was selling. My last attempt at click-baiting involved rubbing peanut butter on a USB hub, and that worked pretty well, right up until the thing was robbed by chipmunk, who made off with $2.38 in loose change. Off to looking.

Continue reading “What Skeuomorphism Means to Me (it doesn’t)”

Why Programmers Sometimes Punch Computers


So. The project would be really great if it were to make use of the slick, speedy capabilities of GeoPackage. GeoPackage 1 is beautifully documented, with slick interactive demonstrations of every nook and cranny of the system. It depends on OtherPack version 3, produced by a different programming group. OtherPack version 3 is no longer distributed because OtherPack 4 is so very much better. GeoPackage 1 can’t work with OtherPack 4, but, GeoPackage 2, which is lurching towards alpha release, does. GeoPackage 2 doesn’t have any documentation but there are many points it has in common with GeoPackage 1 and it even has a dozen demonstration pages showing how neat it’ll be if it ever finishes working. Oh, but, GeoPackage 2 actually only works with OtherPack 4.0 and 4.1. The OtherPack group just got OtherPack 4.2 released and GeoPackage is sadly incompatible with the new release, although this isn’t worth mentioning anywhere except on a desperate-plea-for-help web site where the original question is accused of being “terribly vague”.

See previous comments about the need to roar indistinctly at the computer.

Nine minutes, 28 seconds, in my case


So it turns out customer support phone operators are evaluated on how long it takes for the customer to give up and agree to absolutely anything as long as he’s allowed to get off the phone.

In other news the resolution to our satellite receiver’s defects involve me being sent by UPS, in a box they’ll provide, to their main warehouse facility, where I’m going to and replace their aluminum siding and install new faucets in the bathroom. I have to bring the faucets.

A Voice From Nowhere


I answered the phone with apprehension, since I’m really not a natural phone-answerer. I mostly know what to do about picking it up and saying hello, but after that I feel uncomfortably lost. But I gave it a try.

“What do you think you’re doing?” demanded the voice on the other end.

I’m usually better at questions about what I’m thinking when I don’t stop to think about what I’m thinking. “I think I’m talking to you on the phone.”

“That’s what I’m doing!” was the angry yet logically complete reply.

I said I couldn’t argue it.

“Stop imitating me or I’ll sic a copyright lawyer on you!” and he hung up.

Now you see why I have to be apprehended onto the phone.