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A blog experiment by Brad Mills.

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Lessons in persistence from the water hammer

This is a pretty cool video I found at kottke.org, one of my all-time favorite sites where you can find cool things. Basically, it's an automatic hammer powered by water and made from the very stuff of the earth: wood, twine made from viny plants, stone.

The notes for this video indicate the hammer falls at a rate of once about every ten seconds. It might not sound like you can get any useful work out of that, but that belief likely comes from the more traditional, "modern" view of hammering something, which is to beat the hell out of it at a very rapid clip. That does indeed get the work done, but you end up with a sore arm and maybe some recuperation time depending on the job.

Instead, consider this: as long as that little stream of water is running and nothing breaks, this hammer will run continuously, day and night, day after day after week after month. It may not have the precision needed to hang up a picture, but this hammer isn't built for precision. It's built for consistent and relentless force applied over and over and over again. If you need to grind some corn into meal or pulverize some rock into fine powder, this does the trick quite nicely.

My favorite part of the video is when he watches the hammer working for a bit and then walks away from it. It keeps on working while he's away doing something else. I can imagine the odd feeling coming over the first primitive man who built a contraption like this once he realized he could leave the machine alone, working unsupervised, while he tended to another task, like checking the rabbit traps or painting a bison on the wall of a cave or something.

We realize gains in efficiency when we automate certain portions of our lives. Monthly bills, for example, one of my favorite examples. I discussed this one pretty recently. All my monthly bills are as automated as possible so I can do other things (like check the rabbit traps). Amazon has warehouses full of robots which move goods from one end to the other in an orchestrated ballet of logistics... and you'd better believe if there's any one company on this planet squeezing as much efficiency out of its operation as possible, it's Amazon.

Another thing to learn here is that small consistent actions, over time, can make a big difference. One hammer drop every ten seconds over a 24-hour period gives us 8640 hits from the hammer. I'm no expert, but I'd say I personally can hit a hammer about twice a second. I'd have to go at it for an hour and 12 minutes without a break to match this machine... and I'm pretty sure I'd be too tired to continue after much less time than that (and likely would be too sore to attempt it again the next day). The machine could go for another three days or three weeks with no problem, working at only 5% my speed.

Those little things add up. Sometimes when we think they're not making a difference, they really are, and sometimes, they're the only things that are. Little by little, bit by bit... and that unrelenting persistence gets the job done as well as a quick burst of activity. Never give up.

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New Coke Zero, or, let's try this again

Coke Zero is being discontinued. Further, it's being replaced with a brand-new formula. Well great Scott, Marty, this sounds oddly familiar.

New Coke vs. Coke Classic I don't drink a lot of carbonated beverages anymore myself, opting instead for tea or water. Coffee in the morning, of course, black — and slightly less viscuous than Valvoline 10W-30. Anyway, my point is the Great Coke Switcheroo Part II won't affect me much. But there are people who are really passionate about this. I get that... and given Coke's extremely similar tactic and its spectacular failure about thirty years ago, one would think they'd have learned from it and not tried to make the same mistake again.

Well, let's look at that a bit.

I was a mere youngster when the New Coke fiasco took place, and for awhile I had an actual can of the original Coke and the supposedly identical Coke Classic. Despite claims to the contrary, the ingredients were different. The biggest change was the substitution of high fructose corn syrup for sugar. Let's not be naive here — when the second-largest ingredient in your product is swapped for a completely different ingredient, two things are absolutely going to change: the flavor and the manufacturing cost.

Coca-Cola has been around for a long time, and you could argue they are one of the most successful marketers ever. The red can with its white swoosh thing (or "dynamic ribbon device" as they call it) is an iconic symbol recognized all over the globe. Given that, it would be extremely foolhardy to change what works, whether taste or appearance. But in 1985, they did just that. Why?

Hint: high fructose corn syrup is very inexpensive when compared to sugar. So for the 1985 change, I'd say it's as simple as following the money.

As for changing Coke Zero to Coke Zero Sugar, the new name of the soda, there's no sugar to remove (zero sugar — get it?), so it's not that. Maybe some other ingredient has become too expensive and the profits aren't what they once were. Maybe there are too many people like me who have steered away from carbonated beverages as a whole. I don't know. But I'll probably get a can just to see what all the fuss is about. Maybe that's the game... getting people to just try it again.

That's not good in the long-term, but it creates buzz in a mature industry... and if that's the goal, they've definitely succeeded.

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Trust in the digital era

Go ahead. Click it, I dare you.

I see this and similar widgets on a lot of websites. Being a guy who codes websites here and there, I can kind of guess what it does and how it works, and I've in fact written code to work with this kind of widget before. I have no agenda beyond making things easier for the end user and hopefully reducing the number of errors I'll need to deal with on the back-end later. However, I'm going to surmise that not every website — and perhaps even not every web developer — is operating with a clean agenda.

That's not to say all of them are dirty, but have no doubt that some of them are, and beyond what's shown on your screen (and perhaps not even then), you truly have no idea what happens to any of your information.

For example... just about every monthly household bill I have is automated, and every month, the companies needing to collect a payment from me tap into my bank account and deduct the amounts due. I am personally not involved in these transactions. My involvement ended when I checked a box on my screen, years and years and years ago, that said "I agree to these terms" or something like that. There were probably several paragraphs of text I agreed to, but I don't remember what they were... probably something like "I authorize Company XYZ to automatically deduct payments from my bank account on a regular basis" and a bunch of legal language put in there by lawyers so their egos and heads are all properly inflated.

So in order for this automated magic to work properly, each company needs the following:

  • My account number with said company (which they already have, since I'm already their customer)
  • The amount due (again, which they already have, since they're basically billing it to me)
  • My bank's routing number (available by lookup, though they'd have to know where I bank, so I just provide that number)
  • My account number at my bank (which I provide)
  • My checkmark in a box, agreeing to basically get out of the way and let the magic happen

I put most of those checkmarks in place in the early 2000s (the "aughts" if you will). In the years since, every company providing service to my house has changed hands at least once, some of them multiple times. There hasn't been a single billing interruption in that time. That means the companies which are now deducting money from me are not the ones I authorized to do so way back when Collective Soul was still relevant. That little checkbox I clicked on my screen has carried forward over the years, across multiple billing departments and companies and no doubt computer system and software upgrades, along with my bank routing number and bank account number.

Now I'm sure that, when the information was transferred from the acquired company to the acquiring one, there were thousands upon thousands upon thousands of checkmarks and routing numbers to move over. And it's not like there was a little man wearing a bowler hat running over with a shoebox filled with these things. "Here you go, here are all the checkmarks and routing numbers. Mr. Mills is in here somewhere, I'm sure!" as he tips his hat to the billing department. No, this was also part of an automated thing, hopefully encrypted, sent out over a wire and dropped into the appropriate place in the acquiring company's computers.

There's a lot of trust going on here, and that's where I'm going with this. Over time, we're putting more and more faith into the computer systems we use. Some of these are used to make our lives easier... like making automated payments for household bills, for example. My grandparents used to drive around all over town and pay bills in person, my parents sat down and mailed out checks each month, and I checked a box on a screen umpteen years ago and said "I trust you, you guys got this, I'm out." In exchange for this trust relationship, I get uninterrupted water and electricity and gas, and hours of my time are freed up each month.

So what if it's not such a clear relationship? Like... let's say installing an app on your phone. And then creating an account with it, and allowing all the permissions it asks for (like access to your email address, contacts, phone number and location). And then signing in, clicking the "remember me" box so you don't have to keep track of your account information, and trying whatever it's designed for. And then, deciding you don't like it, and deleting it. Great, so... did that also delete your account? How about your email address? How about your location? Did the app forget you? If you reinstall it again later, will it remember that it was remembered, and just sign you back in?

How can you know?

I don't have any answers. Further, my voice in this will certainly be drowned out in the constant roar of information flowing around us each and every day. But, I submit we are making a lot of assumptions about the software we interact with, and while a lot of those assumptions are ok to make, there's an incredibly good possibility that it's not always ok to make that leap of faith.

And there's no way to know when it is and when it isn't.

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Sources say...

This is probably going to put me on a list. Maybe I'm already on one.

In Mr. Trump's tweet from 2012, "an extremely credible source" told him about a fraudulent birth certificate. I totally understand the reasoning for protecting your source if the information is particularly incendiary. But you know, saying "I have a piece of secret information, hee-hee-hee" on a public forum like Twitter defeats the purpose.

Fast forward five years later. Linguistically, passive voice is a shady tactic used to blur responsibility. Mr. Trump acknowledges this and uses it to smear the media, adding that "fake news" is the enemy.

Here's a dumb question on my part: could the 2012 tweet with its unnamed (but "extremely credible") source also be considered "fake news" under the exact same argument?

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Flood warnings

About eleven months ago, West Virginia experienced one of the worst floods in its known history. I drove around on the morning the rivers crested and took lots of pictures. I debated putting them up here but changed my mind — mainly because there was already lots of coverage of the event, and I didn't feel like adding to what seemed like "Oh, the humanity" horror reporting. People didn't need to see even more of it.

Ok, so quite awhile later, after the worst has ended, here's a picture from the WV Flood of 2016.

WV Flood of 2016

I've been watching the rain come down for the last few days and have once again heard the occasional "braap!... braap!... braap!" emergency alert sound coming from my phone. I remember in the days and hours before the flood, my phone was going off constantly, almost to the point where it was easier to ignore. A flood of information, we could say. But I guess it's safe to say there was plenty of warning.

Meanwhile, there are lots of reports about Antarctica in the news this year. Like this article from the renowned Yale University about ice caps melting rapidly on Greenland and Antarctica and a potential six-foot rise in the world's sea levels as a result. Or this one from ABC News, about how Antarctica is melting faster than expected. Or how about the New York Times article about the giant crack on the Larsen C ice shelf, which — if it becomes a complete break — would release an iceberg larger than Delaware into the sea. If that's not scary enough, moss is growing on Antarctica three times faster than normal.

I know, this is all "fake news" and hysterics. But is it? If one looks back in history, across numerous human cultures, one finds there is a pretty common tale of a great deluge. I guess the Noah story is most well-known, but there are others, and they each hint very strongly that the floodwaters came in a matter of days. Not centuries... not years... days. There are even Native American flood stories — pretty far-removed from the ones in the Old Testament.

Could there be another flood? And not just the one we had in West Virginia last summer — a huge one? Could it happen in a matter of days instead of years? Could we be seeing the warning signs of it now, in the collapsing ice shelves, or in the records and stories of our ancestors?

The forecast for tomorrow: rain.

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No comment

I've turned commenting off here. It's been that way for about six months. I got a couple of emails about that, but I'm leaving them off for the foreseeable future. There's been a declining number of comments over time, and while there were plenty of additions to the conversation, there was also a nontrivial amount of spam to deal with, plus — let's face it — eight years later, there are now other bigger sites where the "conversations" are happening.

Jason Kottke addresses this much better than I.

I could easily tie this site into one of the "big dogs" to get a stream of commentary going again... like Facebook or Disqus or whatever. I'm not going to do that. First, this is an independent site (fiercely!) and I'm not interested in orbiting those stars. Second, what would be the point. If you're running a site with other peoples' widgets and such all over it sending tracking data and who knows what else hither and yon, at some point you have to admit that it's no longer your site, and you're really just a shill for the big guys. And third, with the levels of vitriol on the Internet these days, I really don't want to be the thought police, especially on a site I'm paying money to run.

Last... it's kind of a pain in the ass, right? I mean, you have to put in your name, and an email address, and then type out a bunch of stuff, and pass a captcha, and then wait and see if the comment gets approved, and on and on and on. Who needs it? Besides, I think all people really want to do is give a thumbs up or thumbs down.

Hence, in lieu of a proper commenting system, I give you anonymous voting. Two buttons, up and down, and not tied to any platform anywhere. They don't get shared to all your friends, they don't track your movements across the web, they don't do anything except let you give my words a yay or nay without telling me who you are or anything else about you. That's it.

And I promise one day I'll write about something worth your upvote.

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