You’re an internet company. You have a hot product and a busy website viewed by thousands a minutes. Unfortunately it’s having outages regularly. The website is slow. It goes down at least once a week. The backend systems are even more a mess. We’re going to fix this you say! We’ll send all the teams to a training provided by some vendor. They have a mediocre flash-based training tool that barely runs on modern browsers. It’s not ideal but that’s what we have. We’ll give the managers a bit more training maybe. Some random folks from various teams will get some mentoring from a few of our more senior engineers.
That’s absurd! No company does that. At your company, you have incident post-mortems. You insist teams have metrics and dashboards that surface uptime, latency and other relevant metrics to senior leadership. Individuals are empowered to look at technical challenges, relevant metrics and suggest ideas to their managers to improve them. The idea that some stupid infrequent training would solve scaling and availability challenges is absurd.
But consider: some infrequent mediocre training is what nearly all companies do to handle diversity related challenges including hiring, attrition, harassment, inequity and more. At most companies, the metrics are not visible: you work at a “good” tech company if you know basic numbers like percentage of black people or women in technical roles (good luck finding metrics for “black women in technical roles” much less “black women in senior leadership of technical orgs”). Managers and teams are not held accoutable for attrition as they would be if their team’s software was constantly failing. There are no post mortems to explain why such-and-such org can’t seem to retain women for more than a year or so. If there are more programs than just training (e.g. mentorship programs), they aren’t available to everyone, many aren’t even aware of them and they usually aren’t measured for effectiveness.
Why is that? The people running these companies are not stupid. The middle management aren’t stupid. People in general aren’t stupid.
What people do have are “good intentions”. In a small company, you can mostly rely on good intentions to maintain culture. If you start a new tech company now, you can chose to make an effort to be inclusive from the start. Your communicative overhead is relatively low, the number of folks that have to adopt and believe in your plans for company culture are small and good intentions will get you pretty far in building something better.
But if you’re hundreds or thousands of people strong? Transmission of culture is hard. Only part of it will happen. Even if you start out with the intent to build an inclusive culture that can actually retain a workforce similar to humankind, it won’t easily happen as you grow. When you’re small, your mechanism for culture transmission can include “one on one meetings with a founder”. When you’ve grown, when you “scale” your company, what is your mechanism?
Good intentions can’t be your mechanism. You’re bringing in too many people with extensive work histories and their own ideas about how to do things. The junior people are just trying to get a handle on working at all, never mind learning all the culture you want them to learn: they are going to learn a mangled version of it. You’re going to have pockets of the company that behave very differently than the founders’ original vision. That’s for all of your culture. If you’re in a typical tech company your company wasn’t founded with inclusivity as a value. If you don’t count on good intentions to transmit values around ownership for production problems, why would you count on good intentions to “fix” your lack of diversity?
So that’s why this story is absurd. No reasonable leader would expect even a good one day training to fix a team’s technical challenges. Even with training, they’d have metrics to track, there would be ongoing coaching up and down the management chain and it would be a regular subject of organization meetings from senior leadership offsites to team’s daily standups. And ultimately failure would have consequences.
But to build a better, more inclusive, culture we see “good” tech companies where leadership hides metrics, barely invest in programs or training, don’t hold people accountable even for egregious failures and shrug and think “good attentions” work. Is it any wonder the “numbers” have barely moved?
A certain senior monk found himself in need of more developers to meet his project’s deadline. He asked the clan abbot for help.
Said the abbot: Let us go to Tongshing the Project Manager; for he is wise in the ways of Customer Relationships, and can advise us on how best to approach our client.
After hearing their desires, the Project Manager unfolded a morning newspaper. He turned to the page on which the day’s astrological forecasts were printed, scrutinized it, frowned and said: today is not a propitious day. Consult me again tomorrow.
The next day, and the day after, and the day after that, the monk and the abbot returned to the Project Manager for counsel. Each time, the Project Manager unfolded his paper, shook his head, and told the pair to return tomorrow.
But on the fifth day, Tongshing said: if you each don robes of crimson, today will be a most propitious day to ask your client for more money.
The monk and the abbot did as they were told, and returned to the Temple with a pouch full of silver coins. Later, the monk went to the Project Manager and said: I cannot argue with success, but your methods are most unorthodox. In an Enlightened Age such as ours, how did you come to believe in astrology?
I do not, said the Project Manager. But your client does, and he subscribes to this same newspaper.
By Daniel Goodman
Dear Mayor Ed Murray, City Council Member Kshama Sawant, and City Attorney Pete Holmes,
Our city is in a crisis, and I demand to know what you are doing to end it. Mayor Murray, you ran for mayor on a platform of police reform and decreasing crime in our city. I’m writing to hold you all accountable for failing the city of Seattle.
Walking on Boylston 30 feet from Pine, I heard someone behind me say, “Hey!”. I turned around to a smiling white guy and his friends who looked about my age, 31. Immediately I was punched in the face. That’s all that I remember of the incident.
I don’t know how long I was out for. It was long enough for the blood from the gash on my forehead to trickle its way along my scalp, through my hair, and crust up on the back of my head where I was lying face up on the concrete. When I regained consciousness, two girls were hovering over me asking me if I was ok. They called the police for me, as my phone had been stolen. I went to Harborview Medical and got stitches for the gash in my forehead. I was told that the hole from the inside of my gums through to the outside of my face would heal on its own.
Officer Bale (#6783) gave me a business card with incident # 2015-283301 written on it. I’ve checked online to see the police report, but I don’t see it yet. Many police reports from the weekend describing incidents similar to mine are available at seattle.gov, so I’m not sure why mine isn’t there.
Thursday night a 24 year old man was shot to death walking his dog in the Central District. Saturday night, there was a murder outside of the Baltic Room, blocks from where I was mugged.
According to the SPD blotter, “Officers located several separate groups of shell casings within 1.5 blocks indicating multiple people had fired weapons.”
Considering that there were 2 murders so close to home this weekend, I’m so thankful to be alive and merely suffering from some face wounds and a stolen cell phone. But I want to know what’s going on. Is this amount of violent crime on Capitol Hill normal, or is it on the rise? Is my neighborhood becoming an unsafe place to live, or has it always been so? If crime is on the rise in Capitol Hill, what are your theories to explain the rise? What is the city doing to try to make it better? What can I do?
The Capitol Hill blog wrote:
“While the gunplay on the streets of the East Precinct has apparently become a large enough issue to justify ATF surveillance cams in the Central District, Seattle Police appear to have another summer crime initiative more firmly in hand.
Reports of robberies and pickpockets on Capitol Hill are down 34% through July compared to the same period last year.”
Are robberies really down 34%? Why hasn’t my incident been reported on seattle.gov? Can you assure me that my incident will be reported AS A ROBBERY? What checks are in place to ensure that no reported incidents are left out of the public records?
A group of thugs left me unconscious and bleeding on the sidewalk. Assault and robbery are felonies. Thank God I wasn’t one of the murdered Seattle citizens. Who is working on finding the guys who did this to me? I haven’t received any follow up phone calls from the police. Does the City Attorney’s office have a record of this? What are they planning to do if a suspect is arrested? Officer Bale gave me no direction as to what my next steps should be. His lack of direction may as well be interpreted as saying, “There’s nothing else we’re really going to do about this because this isn’t a very serious crime to us, so just try walking around your neighborhood without feeling paranoid that you’re going to be jumped.”
In March, the Capitol Hill Blog published a letter written by Pike/Pine businesses asking for increased foot patrol in the Pike/Pine area “to head off summer crime woes.” What was your response to that grass-roots approach? Did you increase foot patrols in the Pike/Pine area?
Mayor Murray, the Seattle Times quotes you as saying, “The problem is significant enough, I think, for me to pull community leaders together so they can advise us on what we should do.” We need YOU as our LEADER to TELL US WHAT TO DO, and not the other way around. We are not criminal justice professionals. You are in charge of the SPD. City Attorney Holmes, you are in charge of prosecuting such criminals. What are you doing? City council member Kshama Sawant, you’re running for city council to represent me in district 3.
Do the city council and the offices of the City Attorney and Mayor have a cohesive plan for dealing with this rise in street crime?
Is part of your crime initiative to have robbery and assault reclassified as petty street crimes and not reporting them so your statistics look better?
What can I do to support you and the SPD? Are there any neighborhood organizations or movements I can get involved with?
How can the Safe Place program be expanded? It’s great for a business to say that they want to be a safe place for a victim, but what can a business do if it wants to help decrease crime so that there are fewer victims?
Lead us on this, don’t pad statistics. Stop what happened to me from being the usual thing we read about EVERY WEEKEND. Do something to find the thugs who attacked me. This could happen to anyone in the city. If the thugs had left you or any of your family members to die at Boylston and Pine, would you ensure that the crime was reported? Would you make sure that the SPD found these thugs and were prosecuted?
TL;DR: Did you know that The Verge delivers you to around 20 companies for advertising & tracking purposes? I didn't. That might foul up your mobile web experience a little bit. Maybe we should try something different.
So, I've been a big fan of The Verge, almost since day one. It's a gorgeous site and the content is great.
They've done some amazing things with longform articles like "What's the deal with translating Seinfeld" and "Max Headroom: the definitive history of the 1980s digital icon", and the daily news output is high quality.
Calling out browser makers for the performance of sites like his? That's a bit much.
Here's my thing: I've never had an iPhone. I've had Palm webOS phones, a parade of Android devices, and now an experimental Boot2Gecko phone on really nice hardware. Some sites have long been a delight on whatever gadget I fetch from my pocket. Others, I've watched decay over the years as their mobile web experiences are neglected in favor of those frantically promoted apps.
The Verge isn't quite either of those. And, for me as a fan, it's frustrating.
A page view on The Verge is a heavy load. I've known this for awhile, but it wasn't until now that I decided to take a peek at what might be wriggling under this log.
So, I opened up the Dev Tools in Firefox and gave the page a reload on a cleared cache.
That's fine - 75kb of HTML for the article. But, I also expect there'll be a font or two and a raft of images.
We're up to 20 requests and 1.4MB over ~7 seconds. That's on the upper end of what I'd advise, but it's not terrible. I said that The Verge is a gorgeous site - that takes some resources. Hell, this very blog post is going to be bigger than I'd like, and it's no visual delight.
Oh, but wait, it's not done loading yet. I'm starting to read & scroll, but my browser's still spinning. I wonder what the final stats will be?
Holy crap. It took over 30 seconds. In the end, it fetched over 9.5MB across 263 HTTP requests. That's almost an order of magnitude more data & time than needed for the article itself.
What the hell is all this stuff?
Just to put this in some rough perspective: Assuming I had a 1GB / month data plan, I could visit sites like The Verge about 3 times per day before I hit my cap. If I'm lucky, some or most of this will get cached between requests so it won't be quite that bad. In fact, another report tells me that a primed cache yields 8MB transferred - so maybe 4 visits per day.
That's assuming caches on mobile are comparable to my laptop, which is not a safe assumption.
Still, this isn't one of the cool longform articles on The Verge with interactive features and whatnot. This is just a straightforward 1600 word rant with a few quotes & images. Oh, and one video. Not entirely different than this blog post.
What in the world is all this code doing?
Hmm, I think I Nilay Patel tweeted a hint:
Man, I'd hazard a guess that most of what you just delivered was advertising. That, and spyware.
Lightbeam is a Firefox add-on that uses interactive visualizations to show you the first and third party sites you interact with on the Web.
So, I figured I'd let it take a look at The Verge. This is what it showed:
Imagine this is an iceberg as viewed from above. The Verge is the tip above water, the big circle in the middle. The triangles dancing around it are third-party sites lurking under the surface. Lightbeam has a list view, so I switched to get a closer look:
Sweet Jeebus. "You have visited 1 SITE. You have connected with 47 THIRD PARTY SITES."
Now, to be fair, scrolling through the report I could see that some of these distinct "sites" are clearly alternate domains owned by the same organization. That said, I still found over 20 different companies before I got tired of digging:
I feel like someone just set up the entire vendor hall from an awful tech conference in my living room. Seriously, could you folks just not pick one or two or ten? Did you hit every booth and say "Yeah, cool, sign us up!" I feel thoroughly spindled & folded & researched, here.
In former lives, I've worked at ad agencies and digital marketing companies. I'm no stranger to conversations that revolve around partners & bizdev & analytics & media buys. I can only imagine things have intensified & evolved since I've been out of those trenches.
Still - and maybe this is the Mozilla brain-damage talking - I can't imagine a sane conversation that resulted in The Verge extending an invitation to over 20 companies to set up shop on my computer with every page visit. I can only imagine this as a steady drip-drop of bizdev decisions and emails to internal webdevs:
"Hey, can you add this tracking pixel? These guys do realtime attention heatmapping and it's brilliant!"
"Paste this snippet into the global template, please? This fourth programmatic ad platform is really going to fill in the gaps for the other three."
"One more script thing here. We need to capture the affiliate credit for all these links going out to e-commerce sites."
"Oh hey, we're going to need this new script to manage the dozen ad platforms we use now."
I'm guessing no one along the way had the power or motivation to say no. I mean, really, what's the cost in tossing one more straw onto that camel's back? I know I never looked or complained until now, and I doubt the majority of readers will ever bother.
We all just kind of get this growing sense of malaise about "the web" as a gestalt of our favorite sites as they get suckier.
So, I haven't taken the time to dig into the source code of those companies' specific contributions to the article. There are only so many hours in the day, and I have a ranty blog post to finish.
First, even assuming this code comes from a local cache, parsing it into something executable has a cost. Of course, someday, we'll have WebAssembly to shift this first stage upstream into webdev build tools. But we don't have that, yet.
Then, there's what that code's actually doing once it runs. There's the usual reporting on every scrap of browser fingerprint data. There's deciding whether and what ads to fetch & inject. I've seen scripts that record every pixel of mouse movement and phone home every few seconds.
Some spawn lots of hidden iframes, each doing something fun. Others run code 10 times per second that trigger little invisible page re-renderings that chew up CPU and make scrolling & orientation changes chug. Some scripts get run multiple times and perform duplicate work. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate.
Wait, where was I?
I've seen that the argument that this is how the web gets funded. Everybody's doing it. This is the current state of the art. Browsers just need to suck it up & make it happen.
Some sites are (much) better than others, though, and it doesn't seem to be directly related to the content. Here's what I saw when I did a quick check of some daily reads:
If you've bought into my thesis that this stuff should take a lot of the blame for poor mobile performance - it's no surprise that I'll claim these sites are progressively better experiences as I step down the list.
I also didn't dig deeply into each of these. But, it's pretty clear The Verge blows other sites out of the water in terms of what it demands from a browser. Forbes is a very close second, though, and it sometimes seems to do annoying things like phone home every second or so while I'm on the page.
Oh, and admittedly I don't visit the Mozilla home page as a "daily read", though I do use MDN regularly. I've also worked on both, so I have some notion of what they're (not) doing - and how much we beat ourselves up internally about reaching sub-second page loads. (Man, do we look good now, or what?)
Nilay Patel says "what we really need is a more powerful, more robust web." Personally, I think the web we have right now can pretty damn powerful & robust. Stop trying to make a sedan tow a house.
But, is it ultimately a good idea to optimize for these icebergs that consist of the tiny bit we came for, perched atop a great big submerged intelligence gathering apparatus assembled on-demand from a consortium of marketing & analytics firms?
Just what are we building these browsers for? Is this what we want as users? Because, browsers are user agents. I know the web needs to get funded, somehow. But should the agents operating on our behalf just blindly accept whatever publishers want to send gurgling down the pipes? Maybe our agents should be asserting themselves to get us a better deal & better performance. This is dangerous talk, I know, and it implies some slippery slopes.
In a nutshell, they do it by making publishers less free to crap it all up and users less free to encounter crap. That is, "curation". As gatekeepers, they force publishers to strip it all down and make their deals with just one middle man. Win-win - except it's a solution for a self-made problem that introduces new gatekeepers and leaves us with far less choice & control over our agents.
Browsers have typically tried to stay neutral, because asserting an opinion can start some nasty fights. But, if the choice is to watch the web head off into the sunset, what do we have to lose? Maybe browsers should impose a few of the constraints these news apps introduce. We keep things like Adblock Plus at arm's length for plausible deniability - but everyone I know uses it.
Meanwhile, there are people pondering how to improve funding for the web. Believe it or not, the Content Services team at Mozilla is thinking about way more than just "plunking ads into Firefox". Like, what if we actually accepted the fact that ads are a way of funding the web at large, and browsers themselves offered built-in mechanisms to support advertising that respect privacy & performance? Yeah, that's a bit of a change from browsers' traditional neutrality. But, it could be a better deal for publishers and users together.
Here's another idea: Almost a year ago, I heard the notion of "Subscribe 2 Web" at Mozilla. The gist is that you're worth about $6.20 per month across publishers via advertising revenues. What if you paid that much into an account yourself every month and used a mechanism built into your browser to distribute that money? Yeah, it's micropayments, but I find it interesting that these folks came up with a specific dollar amount that doesn't sound terrible.
But, if you don't like that, we have other options. I'm a listener of Tom Merritt's Daily Tech News Show - and I support him via Patreon. We've also got things like Flattr. We've got a pile of other ideas out there - but, none of them are as convenient as web spyware because users don't complain or impose a cost. If browsers started getting tough on web spyware, necessity might force some of these options to grow.
Yeah, so I'm out of steam. Sorry (not sorry) for the wall of text, and the complete lack of pictures toward the end.
Anyway, there are many things that make the mobile web suck. Bad CSS layout, heavy UI frameworks, you name it. And, yeah, browsers can get better. They are getting better. There are interesting capabilities on the horizon.
But, I can't help thinking if everyone shrank those tracking & advertising icebergs down to some sane magnitude relative to the actual content, that this web might be a better place overall.
Talk to women who play games online, especially first-person shooters, and you'll quickly hear tales of them being bombarded with gender-focused harassment if and when they decide to speak up on a groupchat channel. Now, a new study suggests that the players most likely to engage in this kind of harassment are the ones who are actually worst at the game itself.
In the study, published last week by the Public Library of Science, two researchers from the University of New South Wales and Miami University of Ohio looked at player reactions during 126 recorded matches of Halo 3 team deathmatch. Matches were divided into a control group—where the player was silent throughout—and two experimental groups where the researchers played the same set of inoffensive prerecorded statements (e.g., "Alright team let’s do this" or "That was a good game everyone") in either a male or female voice.
For each experimental match, the researchers transcribed any responses to these prerecorded snippets from their teammates (all the responses came from male-identified voices—if there were any other women playing in these matches, they stayed silent). Those responses were then hand-coded into positive (e.g., "Do ya thing, girl"), negative (e.g. "Should've made me a sandwich, bitch"), and neutral (e.g., "You wanna jump in the jeep?") groups. The researchers also kept track of the responding players' overall Halo 3 skill ranking (as determined by Xbox Live) and game-specific metrics like kill/death ratio and whether the team won the game. These performance metrics were also compared against the experimental player to create a relative skill ranking.
This afternoon, Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat had an excellent, but inartfully headlined, scoop: Mayor Ed Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda committee (HALA–rhymes with balla) could, according to a draft plan leaked to Westneat, recommend doing away with the label “single-family zoning” and replacing it with the more inclusive “low-density residential zone,” which would allow more flexibility to build backyard cottages, duplexes, and other very low-density (but not exclusive single-family) housing types.
The new designation, even if it’s limited to a pilot project, as the draft suggests, would be a stunning rebuke to the supposed sanctity of single-family zoning, which applies to an astonishing 65 percent of all the land in Seattle.
The recommendation seems almost designed to fan the flames of single-family protectionism (ten bucks says the leaker was a disgruntled HALA member who believes he or she benefits from those protections), and Westneat (or his editor) didn’t do urbanists any favors by reporting on the proposal under the inflammatory headline, “Get rid of single-family zoning in Seattle, housing task force says in draft report.” (That headline has since been changed to “Drop single-family zoning, housing panel considers.” By tomorrow it may be “Housing panel considers change,” but the 500-plus unhinged comments on Westneat’s piece suggest the damage is already done.)
Those who believe it’s their God-given right to own a four-bedroom house on a 5,000-square-foot lot and never have to cross paths with a single apartment dweller on their route from house to two-car garage to office tend to see any incursion on that right (including a rule change that allows them to build an apartment for Grandma) as an assault on their way of life.
I mean, how dare those HALA hippies point out the historical fact that single-family zoning was originally designed to keep minorities and poor people out? Don’t they know that exclusive areas for wealthy white homeowners is just the natural order of things? The draft report begs to differ:
The exclusivity of Single Family Zones limits the type of housing available for sale or rent, limits the presence of smaller format housing and limits access for those with less income. Seattle’s zoning has roots in racial and class exclusion and remains among the largest obstacles to realizing the city’s goals for equity and affordability. In a city experiencing rapid growth and intense pressures on access to affordable housing, the historic level of Single Family zoning is no longer either realistic or sustainable. HALA recommends allowing more flexibility and variety of housing in Single Family zones to increase the economic and demographic diversity of those who are able to live in these family oriented neighborhoods. In fact, HALA recommends we abandon the term “single family zone” and refer to such areas as low-density residential zones
But as much as I love the symbolic potency of a rule change designed to drive single-family protectionists apoplectic, there are so many other reasonable recommendations in the HALA plan that I hate to dwell on the most sensationalistic. Among the lower-profile HALA recommendations are two other relative bombshells that would probably have a much greater immediate, on-the-ground impact than the new low-density zoning designation.
The first is increasing maximum heights in all multifamily areas; the second, getting rid of minimum parking requirements everywhere.
The draft report recommends increasing the existing 65-foot zoning designation to a 75- or 85-foot zone and considering the same increase in 30-foot zones, to allow builders to max out the practical limits of wood-frame construction. These upzones would require changes to the city’s building code and, potentially, approval of new technologies like Cross Laminated Timber (CLT), which allows taller wood-frame construction, to make six- and seven-story woodframe buildings possible. The recommendations also include removing barriers to small apartment and condo buildings in low-rise zones, and encouraging rules that replace empty lots with multifamily housing.
And it recommends “reforming parking policies” to acknowledge the fact that car ownership is declining, by reducing parking requirements for all multifamily housing; redefining “frequent transit service” so that more multifamily developments can be built without excess parking; and eliminating parking requirements not just for backyard cottages but potentially for single-family homes as well. Justifying that last proposal, the committee writes,
Requiring one off-street parking space for every single family home is an artifact of an earlier era and is not a necessary or effective requirement. The space occupied by an off-street garage or parking space could be used instead to accommodate space for housing, including an accessory dwelling unit. The most common parking configuration – a driveway and curb cut accessing a garage from the street – occupies curb space that could be used to provide a parking space on the street. A 1:1 parking requirement eliminates exactly as many on-street spaces as it mandates off the street, causing no increase in parking supply, bisecting sidewalks with countless driveways, and gobbling buildable housing space for redundant (and expensive) parking. Therefore, the City should consider removing the parking requirement for single family homes.
When’s the last time you heard parking referred to as “gobbling” up space for housing?
There’s plenty more to like in the draft proposal—including a new buffer multifamily zone between single-family and commercial areas; expansion of urban village boundaries; increasing the amount of multifamily land across the city, and expanding funding options for affordable housing, along with many incremental changes that would lower barriers to entry for housing–but the connective tissue joining all of those elements is an eye toward long-term improvement, not instant gratification.
Gentrification and displacement may both increase in the short term, but upzoning land now will, the report argues, “help to stem rent increases over the long term. This strategy should be viewed as an investment in Seattle’s overall housing market affordablity for both current and future generations.” Translation: Don’t focus on the short-term loss of the dilapidated but affordable apartment that’s being torn down for transit-oriented development. Instead, see transit-oriented development as a long-term gain.
Similarly, transition zones between existing single-family and commercial areas may allow more density to “encroach” on single-family areas in the short term, but as the whole city densifies, they’ll serve as a needed buffer between more intense commercial uses and single-family areas.
Given the uproar over the very idea of putting single-family zoning on the table, it’s unclear whether the draft HALA recommendations will emerge from the committee in anything like their current form. But if they do, it could be a game changer for a city where urbanism has been a battle of tiny, incremental gains often offset by monumental backlashes from those who benefit from the established order.
Yesterday, the Supreme Court handed down a ruling: two people of any gender can get married anywhere in the US. I painted my nails rainbow colors to celebrate. Then I decided I wanted to draw something as well, and this fell out.
Really, I feel like this is kind of the fate of every holiday celebrating some ethnicity’s independence in the US: “hey I guess these people are cool but what’s really important here is drinking funny-colored liquor. And maybe dressing funny, too.” And once every single battle a LGBTQI* activist could dream of has been won, that’s what will remain of Pride.
* * * * *
If you are the kind of person who likes to share stuff on Tumblr, I bothered to do a separate post there this time with the image chopped up for better display. It’s here.
It’s asexuality, not flag semaphore, people. Not that hard to understand.
Happy birthday, birthday people of all ages!
Hoo boy feels good to write all this stuff out instead of letting it bounce around in my head, gettin me mad all the time! Plus now I have some panels I can screencap to use in responses to people instead of having to write words
I'm not sure if there will be a part three. If there was one, it'd be about my experiences as a fat girl, which may be a little too sad? Maybe someday!
And don't worry guys, I wouldn't be making these comics if I was super miserable. I am feeling great about myself right now, so there's no need to send me cheer-up messages or anything, I know I am rad and beautiful. Also don't send me long advice emails please
One day I will look back at this comic and laugh at how I misunderstood the aging process.
Take a deep breath. About 78 percent of the air you inhaled is the most abundant pure element found on Earth. Besides its role in the atmosphere, it’s used in all sorts of products: fertilizers, propellants, you name it. It's also an essential component of DNA and proteins. It’s called nitrogen.
But it's something of a mystery. The nitrogen found on Earth doesn’t match the nitrogen found in the Sun or in the tails of comets. Those sources have nitrogen isotope fractions that differ from those on Earth. So how did nitrogen get to Earth in the first place, and where did it come from? One clue is that some very ancient meteorites do match the Earth’s isotopic abundances very closely, implying that the nitrogen may have come from an ancient source that wasn't so much interplanetary, but existed before the planets formed.
In a new study, researchers examined an ancient meteorite using techniques called transmission electron microscopy and secondary ion mass spectrometry. These provide a glimpse of the material it contains and revealed that the meteorite contains a mineral called carlsbergite.
In 2009, Danni Askini was raising hell to debunk “Gender Identity Disorder” from the official list of diagnosable mental illnesses. It’s not like concepts of disease are immutable, after all: Homosexuality was a sickness until 1973, when doctors suddenly agreed that it’s wasn’t. Why shouldn’t transgender people similarly shed the stigma of pathology?
“Oh, young me,” she laughs to the roughly 60 people packed inside Gay City’s tiny auditorium. “You didn’t know!”
Askini is speaking on a panel held last Saturday at the Trans Health Insurance Forum, orchestrated by the Coalition for Inclusive Healthcare. And she’s laughing because, in the past five years, she’s gone from decrying transgender diagnoses to sometimes promoting them, for two reasons.
First, a shift in what that diagnosis means: in 2013, the American Psychiatric Association updated “Gender Identity Disorder” (which treated gender nonconformity per se as an illness) to “Gender Dysphoria” (which concentrates on the harm caused by dissonance between experienced- vs. assigned-gender). Second, the Affordable Care Act (AKA Obamacare) has expanded insurance coverage and — as the Washington Office of the Insurance Commissioner affirmed this past June — prohibited insurer discrimination against trans-related care.
“A lot of trans people have avoided health insurance for years,” says activist Toby Hill-Meyer, “because they felt like it wouldn’t make sense to pay into a plan that doesn’t cover your basic needs.”
But now that a Gender Dysphoria diagnosis has become more of a resource and less of a threat to trans people, activists are scrambling for ways to show that trans-related care –from hormones to surgery — is “medically necessary” and therefore covered by health insurance. The stakes are high for transgender people, who face widespread discrimination and have an attempted-suicide rate of 41%. Referring to hormone therapy for trans adolescents, audience member Dr. Linda Gromko says, “This is nothing less than a suicide prevention measure, period.”
Plenty of folks at the Forum have war stories about insurers reflexively denying trans-related claims. One speaker talks about insurers arbitrarily imposing an age-floor of 18. A man in the audience later relates how he was denied chest surgery because, the company claimed, he seemed fine without it.
Emerson Sekins, formerly of the Q Center at UW, recalls a law student at UW who broke her wrist. “Once the insurance company found out that she was trans,” he says, “they ordered her to repay everything.”
“Insurance companies… will find ways to deny you,” adds Askini. The trick, she says, is persistence. “Appeal, appeal, appeal. The worst they can do is say no.” And a history of denials, she says, makes it harder in the future for insurers to wiggle out of class-action lawsuits or inquiries from the state insurance commissioner.
Resources for appeals and other trans health insurance issues can be found at Q Law, which holds a free legal clinic once per month on Capitol Hill; the Ingersoll Gender Center; the Gender Justice League; and We-Are-1.com.
For the last ten years, my standard advice to someone looking for a programming language to teach beginners has been start with Python. And now I'm changing that recommendation.
Python is still a fine language. It lets you focus on problem solving and not the architectural stuff that experienced developers, who've forgotten what it's like to an absolute beginner, think is important. The language itself melts into the background, so lessons aren't explanations of features and philosophies, but about how to generate musical scales in any key, computing distances around a running track based on the lane you're in, or writing an automated player for poker or Yahtzee.
Then one day a student will innocently ask "Instead of running the poker simulator from the command line, how can I put it in a window with a button to deal the next hand?"
This is a tough question in a difficult-to-explain way. It leads to looking at the various GUI toolkits for Python. Turns out that Guido does the same thing every few years, re-evaluating if TkInter is the right choice for IDLE, the supplied IDE. For now, TkInter it is.
A week later, another question: "How can I write a simple game, one with graphics?"
Again, time to do some exploration into what's out there. Pyglet looks promising, but it hasn't been updated since July 2012. There are some focused libraries that don't try to do everything, like SplatGL, but it's pretty new and there aren't many examples. PyGame appears popular, and there's even a book, so okay let's start teaching how to use PyGame.
A month later, more questions: "How can I give this game I made to my friend? Even better, is there a way can I put this on my phone so I can show it to kids at school without them having to install it?"
All of these questions have put me off of Python as a teaching language. While there's rigor in learning how to code in an old-school way--files of algorithmic scripts that generate monochromatic textual output in a terminal window--you have to recognize the isolation that comes with it and how far away this is from what people want to make. Yes, you can find add-on packages for just about anything, but which ones have been through the sweat and swearing of serious projects, and which are well-intentioned today but unsupported tomorrow?
The rise of non-desktop platforms complicates matters, and I can sympathize. My goal in learning Erlang was to get away from C and C++ and shift my thinking to a higher level. I proved that I could use Erlang and a purely functional style to work in the domain that everyone is most scared of: games. Then the iPhone came out and that was that. Erlang wasn't an option.
Written by GeekGirlCon Manager of Editorial Services Winter Downs and Social Media Manager Kristine Hassell. Special guest starring Gaming Event Coordinator Andy Munich.
Avatar: Legend of Korra, the groundbreaking sequel to the animated series Avatar: the Last Airbender, aired its final episode on December 19. Rather than bemoan the show’s ending (Worst. Christmas present. Ever.), GeekGirlCon’s Manager of Editorial Services Winter Downs and Social Media Manager Kristine Hassell got together for a frenzy of overcaffeinated squeeing in celebration of all the ways the show got things oh-so-wonderfully right.
Warning: spoilers for the show, including the finale, to follow!
At the top of the list was representation. The show depicts women of color; queer women; women recovering from trauma; women with disabilities; middle-aged and older women; women who choose demanding careers; women who put their family first; good women; villainous women… the list goes on.
Top row: Korra and Asami; Opal, Suyin, and Lin; Katara and Jinora. Bottom row: Kuvira; Toph; Kya and Pema (and baby Rohan). All images from Avatar Wiki.
Given the setting, which draws from Chinese, Japanese, Tibetan, Inuit, Pacific Islander, and other (mostly East Asian) cultures, none of the characters can exactly be read as white; there is a huge range of women of color representation. None of them therefore bears the responsibility of being “The Asian” or “The Person of Color”–which means that they can have flaws, they can be petty, they can have ugly sides to their personality without that being the show’s sole embodiment of femaleness or Asianness. Korra is hotheaded, and book-learning is not her strongest suit. Lin is bitter. Kuvira becomes an actual dictator.
There are also several examples of biracial people of color where neither side is white, for example the brothers Bolin and Mako, whose parents were from the Earth Kingdom and the Fire Nation. Kristine showed season one to her niece, who was aged seven or eight at the time. It was the first time the niece saw herself represented on television as a biracial Asian. To an eight-year-old, that’s huge! Kristine recalls her own childhood, when the only Asians she saw in media were tokens or caricatures. Hearing her niece express that about a television show struck a major chord about the importance of representation.
Furthermore, the show’s creators seem at least aware of the real-world problems of shadeism both within communities of color and in white producers’ tendency toward casting lighter- rather than darker-skinned people in film and TV. There doesn’t seem to be shadeism in-universe, but creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael DiMartino have taken pains to make sure that both heroes and villains have a variety of skin tones in Legend of Korra as well as The Last Airbender–more than can be said for the 2010 movie, in which the villains were distinctly darker than the heroes.
It’s not just women of color who are thrilled to see themselves on screen in Legend of Korra. The show’s received both praise and criticism for the way it ended its finale–with Korra going off into the Spirit World for a romantic vacation with Asami Sato, with longing gazes confirming the budding relationship between the two young women. Just to make sure there was no confusion, both Konietzko and DiMartino wrote posts confirming that “Korrasami is canon.”
Korra and Asami enter the Spirit World
Image Source: Michael DiMartino
As Winter puts it, “Korrasami is the story I wanted to see my whole life”–two women who started out as romantic rivals for a boy (Mako) end up in a relationship together. Queer fans had been watching the deepening friendship for three seasons, but many didn’t dare hope to see it realized on screen.
The show was always very obviously about identity and coming of age, but when seen in context with this final development, many of Korra’s decisions take on new resonance for queer fans. One of the show’s strengths has always been in allowing consequences to stand. Where another series might find a way to undo Korra’s disconnection from her past lives (the telepathic connection all Avatars had, until Korra, to those who came before), Legend of Korra makes it a clean break from the past. She leaves the world dramatically changed from the one she found–and not just in the way that Aang from The Last Airbender helped create Republic City and solve the political, human problems. Korra, on the other hand, allows the Spirit World to cross over into the Mortal World so that spirits and humans can live alongside one another, and brings back airbending, reviving the entire nation and culture of the Air Nomads. It seems fitting that a story starring a young queer woman should depict her learning the lessons of the past, and then allow her to move on into a future that celebrates diverse people living alongside one another without needing to become homogeneous.
Konieztko characterizes this not as a “slam-dunk victory for queer representation” but at least a “significant inching forward.” However, when taken into consideration alongside the intersection of Korra’s other identities, it constitutes a much bigger leap.
The show also excels in other, less obvious ways. Take, for instance, the issue of female anger. Unlike in the vast majority of media, women’s anger is portrayed as valid, and the female characters in the show are not required to be ‘nice’ in order to be sympathetic. Lin is grumpy throughout the show, and while she mends fences with her sister and her mother, it doesn’t automatically turn her into a sunny-natured person. Opal is another great example, going from a sheltered existence to the complicated and often rage-inducing outside world when she joins the Air Nomads. Her love interest, Bolin, messes up by supporting Kuvira (who tries to kill Opal’s family). Opal does not immediately forgive him when he realizes his mistake; she makes him work for his forgiveness by acting in opposition to Kuvira’s plans.
All the villains in the show are nuanced and multi-dimensional, to the extent that viewers might find themselves saying, “But Amon has a point…” None moreso than Kuvira, the big bad of the final season, and the only female lead villain (as opposed to sidekick) in the series.
“It’s like Korra has to deal with overcoming a version of her past self,” said DiMartino of Kuvira.
Korra and Kuvira: nothing alike.
Image Source: Avatar Parallels
It’s a bold choice, not only to have a wannabe dictator character with whom the audience might find themselves sympathizing, but to make her a mirror of the main hero–and furthermore to make them both women. Kuvira’s arc is like watching what might have been if Korra had simply gone full Avatar and imposed her will to solve every problem in the world.
Another sympathetic-but-flawed female character is Suyin, the leader of the isolationist city Zaofu. She created Zaofu as a safe haven, and has taken in many strays over the years–including Kuvira, whose birth parents abandoned her. However, her commitment to the safety of her charges above all others leads to a form of classism. While impoverished people throughout the Earth Kingdom struggle to get by, Zaofu can close its dome and cut itself off from all threats. Kuvira accuses Suyin of neglecting her responsibility, as a person with privilege and security, to spread those things to the people who need them the most. Winter and Kristine both read this as a sly criticism of well-meaning privileged in the real-world US who really want to believe that they’re making the world a better place, but fall far short.
So many times in genre TV, the “strong female characters” are the ones who take on traditionally male roles. There’s certainly some of that here, with Korra’s constant saving of the world through magical martial arts, with Lin’s career-mindedness as the chief of police, with Asami’s takeover of the role of influential industrialist when her father goes to prison. However, those aren’t the only ways for women to excel. Jinora, though very young, is very spiritually aware, and acts as Korra’s guide to the Spirit World. Her mother Pema, who has spent most of the series wrangling her three vivacious children, has her moment to shine in the finale when she uses her skills to calm down a panicky crowd during a city-wide evacuation.
Other experiences represented well on the show include disability and trauma recovery–take Korra’s experiences with losing her abilities at the end of season 3, and her struggle to define herself after something so integral to her identity is taken away. On many shows, the problem would be solved almost immediately, but here the viewers see Korra struggle with it for nearly an entire season. Toph, the blind earthbender from The Last Airbender also makes several key appearances.
Women of all ages are allowed to shine. Jinora is about 11 years old when she receives the tattoos that indicate her mastery as an airbender; Lin and Suyin are what Kristine calls “gray-haired women kicking ass;” and Toph, their mother, comes out of retirement to save the family, before declaring that she’ll leave the rest of the fight to the young ‘uns.
The show doesn’t necessarily depict most forms of oppression familiar in our world–the ‘verse began, in The Last Airbender, with Katara getting angry with her brother for his sexism, but 70 years later in the Legend of Korra timeframe, the only character who makes an explicitly sexist comment (that Korra is “kind of muscular for a woman”) is Bolin & Mako’s grandmother, who’s depicted as rather traditional and out of touch. It’s a subtle indicator that the world has moved on.
Instead, the show counters real-world oppression by subverting tropes and depicting women in roles that span the full range of human possibility. Marginalized fans often have little choice but to be content with scraps from the media they love, but it’s going to be hard to go back to that after Legend of Korra.
This show has proven that it’s possible, even in children’s animated media, to tell a subversive, riveting story with three-dimensional characters of all types. It’s time to demand more. Don’t be satisfied with scraps when you can have a feast!
Hanging in the garage of Fire Station #6 in Livermore, California, there’s a small, pear-shaped light bulb. It is glowing right now.
This lightbulb has been glowing, with just a couple of momentary interruptions, for 113 years. You can see it glow in real time.
The bulb is a genuine heirloom from the dawn of electric illumination, built by one of its pioneers: Adolphe Chaillet.
Thomas Edison may be the first inventor to come to mind when thinking about illumination, but he wasn’t the only one. There were legions of tinkerers trying to come up with better designs, trying to iterate and innovate bulbs that would burn longer and brighter at a cheaper cost.
All over America, figurative light bulbs were going off over people’s heads, and some of those became actual light bulbs.
Chaillet liked to do a theatrical product demo where he’d have a big theatre marquee-like light bulb bank. In it would be one bulb of his own design, and the rest would be bulbs by competing brands. Then, Chaillet would start slowly dialing up the power. One by one, the competitors’ bulbs would all explode. Every time, Chaillet’s would be the last one shining.
One of those tenacious lightbulbs made it to Livermore, California, when a shop owner donated it to the town’s volunteer fire department in 1901. That way the firefighters didn’t have to ready their horse-drawn “hose carts” in the dark.
Eventually, the old-fashioned hose carts were replaced with fire trucks. The bulb hung between the firehouse’s two garage doors and the fire fighters were aware of it, but didn’t think much about it. The bulb hung down from a long cord, and it was low enough that you could walk by and tap the bulb and watch it swing back forth. Bored firefighters would throw Nerf balls at it.
In 1971, the first full-time chief of the Livermore fire department, a guy named Jack Baird, got curious about the light bulb. And he asked a local newspaper reporter to look into the bulb’s history. The resulting article got the residents of Livermore talking about the bulb, and it became a point of pride. It was Livermore’s own little antiquity. The firefighters stopped throwing nerf balls at it.
Five years later, when the fire department was moving into a new building, they moved the lightbulb as well, and it was escorted with red lights and siren.
[Credit: Katie Mingle]
As the light bulb was becoming more and more famous, people got to wondering what it was made of, and how it could possibly still be working. The only way to solve the mystery would be to crack the light bulb open, and no one wanted to do that.
In 2001, a group of locals decided that Livermore ought to have a hundredth birthday party for the light bulb. The newly-formed Centennial Bulb Committee started planning what they thought would be a small get together at the firehouse that June. Six hundred people showed up.
By then, responsibility for the bulb had passed from Chief Baird, the first fireman to become interested in the bulb, to one of the firefighters who’d served under him, a man named Lynn Owens.
Owens had been one of the guys in the 1970s who had sat around chucking Nerf balls at the light bulb. When the bulb was 100, Owens was a grinning, aging retiree with tiny glasses and a bristly white mustache. Owens loved the bulb, and he loved to proclaim his love. “That light bulb is dependable,” said Owens. “That light bulb has been doing the job it was intended to do since 1901.”
People have written Centennial Bulb Committee to say the light bulb “gives me hope,” and is a “reassuring reminder of faithfulness and service.” In a letter, President George W. Bush called the light bulb “an enduring symbol of the American spirit of invention.”
The lightbulb outlived Jack Baird, the fire chief who first became curious about it, and Lynn Owens, its most devoted caretaker.
This episode was adapted from a piece that Jon Mooallem wrote for Pop-Up Magazine. Mooallem is also the author of the brilliant book Wild Ones, which was adapted into a live song and story extravaganza we broadcast as 99pi #91. This episode featured interviews from the film Century of Light.
Subscribe to Five Song Fridays from Song Exploder, created on Tiny Letter.
Music: “Qualm”- Melodium; “Gewiß”; “Pfeifferhorn”- OK Ikumi; “Rhea”- OK Ikumi; “Squirrel Commotion”; “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out”- The Smiths; “Ritournelle”- Melodium; “The Light (Demo)“- The Album Leaf
Imagine you were a professional programmer in 1984, then you went to sleep and woke up 30 years later. How would your development habits be changed by the ubiquitous, consumer-level supercomputers of 2014?
Before getting to the answer, realize that 1982 wasn't all about the cycle counting micro-optimizations that you might expect. Well, actually it was, at least in home hobbyist circles, but more of necessity and not because it was the most pleasant option. BASIC's interactivity was more fun than sequencing seven instructions to perform the astounding task of summing two 16-bit numbers. Scheme, ML, and Prolog were all developed in the previous decade. Hughes's Why Functional Programming Matters was written in 1984, and it's easy to forget how far, far from practical reality those recommendations must have seemed at the time. It was another year of two parallel universes, one of towering computer science ideas and the other of popular hardware incapable of implementing them.
The possible answers to the original question--and mind you, they're only possible answers--are colored by the sudden shift of a developer jumping from 1984 to 2014 all in one go, without experiencing thirty years of evolution.
It's time to be using all of those high-level languages that are so fun and expressive, but were set aside because they pushed the limits of expensive minicomputers with four megabytes of memory and weren't even on the table for the gold rush of 8-bit computer games.
Highly optimizing compilers aren't worth the risk. Everything is thousands, tens of thousands, of times faster then it used to be. Chasing some additional 2-4x through complex and sensitive manipulations isn't worth it. You'll regret your decision when for no clear reason your app starts breaking up at high optimization settings, maybe only on some platforms. How can anyone have confidence in a tool like that?
Something is wrong if most programs don't run instantaneously. Why does this little command line program take two seconds to load and print the version number? It would take serious effort to make it that slow. Why does a minor update to a simple app require re-downloading all 50MB of it? Why are there 20,000 lines of code in this small utility? Why is no one questioning any of this?
Design applications as small executables that communicate. Everything is set-up for this style of development: multi-core processors, lots of memory, native support for pipes and sockets. This gives you multi-core support without dealing with threads. It's also the most bulletproof way of isolating components, instead of the false confidence of marking class members "private."
Don't write temporary files to disk, ever. There's so much RAM you can have nightmares about getting lost in it. On the most fundamental level, why isn't it possible to create and execute a script without saving to a file first? Why does every tweak to a learning-the-language test program result in a two megabyte executable that shortly gets overwritten?
Everything is so complex that you need to isolate yourself from as many libraries and APIs as possible. With thousands of pages of documentation for any system, it's all too easy to become entangled in endless specific details. Build applications to be self-contained and have well-defined paths for interfacing with the operating system, even if those paths involve communicating with an external, system-specific server program of sorts.
C still doesn't have a module system? Seriously? And people are still using it, despite all the alternatives?
(If you liked this, you might enjoy Remembering a Revolution That Never Happened.)
Old master Banzen had volunteered to mentor the Spider Clan during master Suku’s travels, but as the months dragged on the experience had worn his nerves quite thin. In one critical application, the components written by different developers were somehow stepping on each other, leading to strange runtime errors.
In desperation, Banzen procured a bottle of huangjiu from master Bawan, downed half of it, and summoned his apprentice Djishin.
A week later, Djishin reported on his progress:
“Our problem lies with the Java servlet’s session and request contexts, where we store data for state and rendering. These contexts are HashMaps whose values are Objects and whose keys are Strings of the developer’s choosing. Since each developer has chosen their keys without consulting their peers, one component will sometimes overwrite the context values used by another—often with an object of an entirely different type.”
“What solution, then?” asked Banzen, uncorking his bottle.
“I have created a shared ContextUtil class with sixty String constants, one for every context key used across the application,” said Djishin proudly. “And for each key I have provided a pair of strongly-typed static utility methods to get or set that key’s value in a given context.”
“Much like property methods,” observed Banzen.
“Exactly!” said Djishin. “I am currently devising a namespace convention for keys so that each subsystem may have its own ContextUtil class, providing additional constants and static methods as needed.”
“Much like subclasses,” observed Banzen.
“Exactly!” said Djishin again.
“Excellent,” said Banzen, draining his cup. “So in seven days, by using only simple constants and functions operating on a generic Java hashtable, we have invented... the Object.”
The Internet Archive has long been one of the coolest sites on the web, thanks to its incredible collection of long-forgotten web pages and public domain films. They added home console games to the mix with the Console Living Room late last year, and now they've unveiled The Internet Arcade - a browser-friendly collection of classic arcade games that will blow your mind.
The list of games includes well-known titles like Frogger, Amidar, Joust, Lode Runner, Rally-X and Zaxxon along with hundreds of lesser known games -- many of which had slipped my mind. Because the emulations use the original game ROMs, you'll have to sit through a few seconds of power-up self tests and deal with odd control arrangements on a few titles. Thankfully, the Internet Archivists have created a page of games that should run at full speed on most hardware.
So how is it done? They say, "The Internet Arcade is a web-based library of arcade (coin-operated) video games from the 1970s through to the 1990s, emulated in JSMAME, part of the JSMESS software package. Containing hundreds of games ranging through many different genres and styles, the Arcade provides research, comparison, and entertainment in the realm of the Video Game Arcade.
The game collection ranges from early 'bronze-age' videogames, with black and white screens and simple sounds, through to large-scale games containing digitized voices, images and music. Most games are playable in some form, although some are useful more for verification of behavior or programming due to the intensity and requirements of their systems."
Visit The Internet Arcade at the Internet Archive to see if you've still got the chops to grab a high score. No quarters required.
After years of speculation and debate about the seemingly open secret of Apple CEO Tim Cook's sexuality, Cook himself finally addressed the matter in an editorial in Bloomberg Businessweek Thursday. "I’ve come to realize that my desire for personal privacy has been holding me back from doing something more important. That’s what has led me to today," Cook wrote.
"While I have never denied my sexuality, I haven’t publicly acknowledged it either, until now. So let me be clear: I’m proud to be gay, and I consider being gay among the greatest gifts God has given me."
Cook had long been a focal point in discussions about powerful gay CEOs. He's also been in the middle of a meta-discussion about titans of industry and their right to privacy versus the powerful position Cook is in as a member of the LGBT community who, as Felix Salmon at Reuters wrote, "rises to a position of great success and prominence." For a long time, Cook wrote at Bloomberg, many Apple colleagues knew he was gay, but he refrained from publicly defining himself as such.
Run for your lives, it’s a slow and chittering Chumbley! These slow little cuties were the robot minions of some baddies and they would slowly bump into things and you until you went where they wanted you to go. They also had a ray gun which helped the Doctor and companions take them a little more seriously.
They were seen in the Galaxy 4.
I think these are some of the cutest Doctor Who baddies, I even made one to go on little walks with me:
The Clan of Iron Bones had just applied the most recent upgrades to the Temple’s servers. After examining some files in /usr/include, host master Yishi-Shing shook his head.
A monk noticed and asked, “Master, do you see some cause for concern?”
Yishi-Shing said, “The type time_t, by which the current system time is obtained, has been declared as a signed long—a mere sixty-four bits.”
Puzzled, the monk started the abacus app on his tablet and rapidly flicked the beads. “Such a number is capable of representing roughly two-hundred-and-ninety-two billion years, forward or backward,” said the monk.
“And this does not trouble you?” asked Yishi-Shing. “Existence itself will cease in a countable number of seconds, and even the makers of our operating system taunt us with this fact!”
The monk considered a moment and said: “Not long ago time_t was only thirty-two bits—incapable of tallying as little as two centuries. The type was expanded with only decades remaining before the Universe’s expiration. I surmise that, sometime near the end of the next two-hundred-and-ninety-two billion years, we will receive another patch.”
The master was comforted.
The first print advertisement for Wonder Bread came out before the bread itself. It stated only that “a wonder” was coming. In a lot of ways, the statement was true. Wonder Bread was the perfect loaf. “Slow food” advocates have pronounced industrial white bread of any brand a symbol of a modern grocery problem: consumers don’t know where our food comes from. The funny thing is that industrial white bread—that evenly sliced, squishy, moist, perfectly white and wondrous loaf—was once a highly designed solution to that very same problem.
For much (if not all) of human history, bread has been one of the most important foods. Our human ancestors 30,000 years ago had a crude form of bread, and nearly every culture on earth since then has created some form of it.
The importance of bread is, shall we say, baked into language. Take for instance, the word “companion.” If we take the word back to its Latin roots, we get “cum,” which means “with,” and “panis,” which is “bread.” A companion, therefore is someone you sit down and break bread with.
Similarly, the word “lord” comes from a word in old English, hlaford, which meant “the keeper of bread.” Political rule was thus bound up in the distribution of the bread supply.
In the middle ages most people got about 80% of their daily calories from bread. Fast forward a millenium or so to the late 19th Century, people were still getting about 30% of their calories from bread. That’s so much bread. That’s bread at every meal, and some meals that were only bread.
[A Nucoa Margarine ad. Courtesy of George Eastman House]
For most of humanity’s long history with bread, bread was made in our homes. Eventually we had small bakeries that supplied bread for more people, but they weren’t a picture of artisanal purity. Bakeries of the early industrial age were dirty and often underground, usually with terrible working conditions. You never knew when the baker would cut costs by mixing the dough with sawdust or other horrible additives.
Also, around the late 1800s and early 1900s, there was a lot of food-borne illness such as cholera and typhus. A lot of Americans were starting to fear their food.
[Credit: Timo Arnall]
People then started getting really interested in where their food came from—only back in the turn of the century, that meant avoiding locally baked bread. Factory bread, the thinking went, was made by clean hands in a modern, light-filled palace of industry. One could see that factory-made bread was clean and healthy, because it was spotless and white.
White flour and white bread aren’t technological innovations themselves; they’ve been around for millennia. Technically speaking, white flour is whole wheat flour with the bran and the germ from the wheat kernel sifted out. Industrial bakers chose white bread as their flagship bread because for them, white meant purity and cleanliness and modernity.
If all this talk of white purity sounds vaguely problematic, it should. As Dr. Woods Hutchinson put it in McClure’s Magazine in 1906, “No race ever yet ate black bread when it could get white; nor even brown, yellow, or other mulatto tint.” Hutchinson, who was a noted health columnist, went on to argue that only white bread would fortify the white race to go forth and conquer other peoples. Food reformers of the day also referred to white bread as a “chaste loaf” and the dark loaf as the “defiled loaf.”
Bread, however, was actually never actually a true vector for contagion (that was mostly the meat and dairy supply). This fear over the safety of bread, it turned out, actually wasn’t actually about bread at all. It was fear about immigration—about the supposedly diseased and dirty hands of southern and eastern European immigrants handling bread in neighborhood bakeries. For middle and upper class whites, xenophobia become inseparable from fears about bread safety.
[The old Wonder Bread Factory in Memphis, TN. Credit: Joseph A]
The science of industrializing and mass-producing bread, however, was still a little wacky. Bread is, after all, the product of microorganisms undergoing biological processes. Baking is a function of time, temperature, and a lot of other variables. In fact, bread was one of the last major foods to be industrialized precisely because of how complex it is to make uniformly.
From the 1920s and 30s onward, industrial bakers were constantly tinkering with the design of white bread. They cut the time it took for the bread to rise by adding sugars and cranking up the temperature. They added emulsifiers to allow the dough’s water and fat to mix together better, giving white bread its height and a more even grain. (That also got rid of the holes.) Eventually vitamins were added, and white bread was sold to the public as a means of making hearty the young men who woulds serve in the war effort.
Various factories created their own recipes for industrial white bread, which all came to a head in 1952, in Rockford, Illinois. The USDA, along with some key figures of the industrial baking world, put together a multiyear project to investigate bread, and bread eating habits. The end product of this so-called “Manhattan Project of Bread” was a white bread that was two and a half times sweeter and 40% fluffier than the average loaf. Americans loved the new white bread, and consumers ate around a pound and a half per week.
But strangely, the Americans who were buying loaf upon loaf of this white bread didn’t actually like it. The Rockford study found many complaints against the texture of industrial white bread—and yet studies also showed that consumers would buy the lightest and fluffiest loaves available.
Then, white bread went through an identity crisis. Where once white bread was a feel-good symbol of progress, the term “white bread” began to get used as an epithet, meaning stuffy, conservative, square, and white-suburban. One of the first documented instances of “white bread” being used as a pejorative adjective was by Richard Pryor, who stormed off the stage of the Aladdin Theatre in Las Vegas, allegedly saying that he was “absolutely done with this white bread humor.”
From around that point forward, countercultural movements began to use white bread as an emblem of the establishment, of the silent majority, of Richard Nixon’s America.
But then, by the 1980s and 90s, the meaning starts to bifurcate: “white bread” also starts to represent poor white people who make supposedly irresponsible decisions about their diet.
“White bread” could represent both affluence and impoverishment, simultaneously and separately.
This debate over which kind of bread to eat—white or wheat—is not new; even Plato takes up the issue in his Republic. And this debate over the right kind of bread is also not even really about bread. It’s been about the anxieties of modernization, immigration, socioeconomic disparity, and even gender roles (i.e., should we buy bread made in a factory by men, or should women produce bread at home?).
When we’re obsessing about bread of any kind, we’re usually obsessing about everything but.
99% Invisible wonder boy Sam Greenspan spoke with Aaron Bobrow-Strain, author of White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf. This story was adapted and expanded from an interview that Radiotopia compatriot Benajmen Walker conducted with Bobrow-Strain in a 2012 episode of his old WFMU show, Too Much Information.
Cover photo by Thomas Hawk
Music: “Metronomic Underground” – Sterelab.
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Next time, we’ll cover the bit about how Twitter is turning into Facebook.
This comic was my last one for the “I Love Charts” collection, which was unfortunately has shut down for the time being. So you can expect a few less charts around here, as I won’t be cross-posting the ones that were premiering on Medium.com.
I did, however, post my full “bike theft” story on Medium as it seemed to lend itself to the format. I’ve been amazed how many people have commented (mostly in person) how much they followed along with the story. So, you can read the whole thing here.
That was this past weekend,and it was a lot of fun! I went into the weekend expecting to set up and have a table and sell comics and things, but unfortunately my busy work schedule and lack of stable mental reserves of energy got in the way. If you looked for me at my table, I apologize. I was there both afternoons socializing with the rest of the Super Art Fight crew, but I didn’t have it in me to lug giant suitcases 160 miles round trip and spend every waking moment worrying about selling things. So, like many of you, I spent my “time off” hanging out at a convention. I haven’t just hung out a con in so long, it was glorious! Thank you to all of you who came by and chatted. I even somehow wound up selling 2 books, despite not really having a table “set up” at all.
SO. EXCITED. FOR. SPX.
Common Cause and more than 50 other advocacy groups this week called on Google to end its affiliation with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a group that has pushed state laws limiting the rights of cities and towns to create community-owned broadband networks. ALEC also opposes network neutrality rules that Google used to be a staunch supporter of and last month urged the FCC to quickly approve Comcast’s purchase of Time Warner Cable without imposing any regulatory conditions on the merger.
In a letter to Google’s top executives, Common Cause et al wrote that “Over the last year, hundreds of thousands of Americans have signed petitions asking Google to end its ALEC membership because of their concerns about the harmful role ALEC has played in our democratic process… The public knows that the ALEC operation—which brings state legislators and corporate lobbyists behind closed doors to discuss proposed legislation and share lavish dinners—threatens our democracy. The public is asking Google to stop participating in this scheme.”
Common Cause also complained about ALEC’s nonprofit status to the IRS in 2012, saying the group “massively underreports” lobbying it does on behalf of corporate members.
Two years ago, we brought you the story of Figaro, a Goffin's cockatoo that lived at a research center in Vienna. These birds don't use tools in the wild—Figaro's minders even argue that the cockatoo's curved beak makes tool use rather difficult for them.
But Figaro's environment, which features lots of wired mesh, apparently drove him to some novel behaviors. He was observed splitting off splinters from wooden material, and the bird used them to retrieve objects (generally food or toys) that were on the wrong side of the wire. Figaro was making tools.
Tool use had been seen in a number of birds, so this in itself wasn't entirely radical. But the researchers involved realized that it presented a fantastic opportunity to learn how tool use spreads in birds and what that tells us about their inherent mental capacities. Now, two years on, they're back with a description of how, when given the chance, Figaro has started a bit of a social revolution.