From slavery to COBOL

Recently Yale University renamed one of their “residential colleges” (dorms): it had previously been named after John C. Calhoun, and now is named after Admiral Grace Hopper. The administration explained that although they don’t intend to go around renaming everything to satisfy every politically correct complainer, this was a particularly egregious case: the original naming after Calhoun had been not because of any strong link to Yale, but to honor Calhoun’s career as a politician, notably his advocacy of slavery as a “positive good” and of white supremacy. The college had featured a stained glass window depicting happy slaves on a plantation, recently smashed in protest. The original naming was done in 1931, long after Calhoun’s death, long after the Civil War, and at a time when white supremacy was, in the terms of today’s social networks, “strongly trending”.

Today, of course, one thing that is “strongly trending” is advocacy of women in technology. But skepticism as to such trends should not stop one from honoring people who truly deserve it. And for all I know Hopper does: I have not made any real examination of her career, but the occasional things I have heard of her have been positive. Still, the particular grounds called out by the Yale administration for naming the college after her are problematic. They seem to center around her efforts in advocating “word-based computer languages”, of which COBOL is the prime example, and one which she was instrumental in.

COBOL today is almost as dead as slavery was in 1931; and just as the namers in 1931 seem not to have asked the descendants of slaves to weigh in on Calhoun, programmers seem not to have been asked what we think of COBOL. Personally, I never had to suffer through COBOL (it was before my time), but suffering was the word. For one thing, the language was quite verbose. A dominant language today is C++; the name of that language is not only its name but a statement you can write in it. The corresponding statement in COBOL is “ADD 1 TO COBOL GIVING COBOL”. Now, admittedly nonprogrammers likely will be able to guess what the latter statement means, whereas with the former statement you just have to know. But programmers do know, and we object to having to write mountains of text to convey what to us has become simple. To force us to do so isn’t humane, it is inhumane: it denies us one of the main human powers, that of learning and developing skills.

So while Yale has changed the name of the college, it is still named in honor of a failed effort to crush the human spirit.

Soap / shampoo that doesn’t stink

I’ve long detested the way that just about every personal cleaning product that is sold has some added “fragrance”. I want to wash away odors, not mask them; but the people who bottle and sell such products don’t cater to my wants. Perhaps they live in some marketing bubble where they don’t know anyone with spartan tastes and so never consider us as potential customers. Notable in this regard is one shampoo I recently encountered which claimed to be “fragrance-free” but had a definite smell. Inspection of the list of ingredients revealed “burdock root” near the end; that substance is noted for its odor. The product seems to have been made for people who want their shampoo to be “fragrance-free”, not for people who want their shampoo not to stink.

But recently the realization finally hit: this is the Internet age; I can just buy sodium lauryl sulfate and mix it with water. And so it was: the stuff is cheap, and when mixed with about ten times as much water (by weight), it gives a clear solution which is absolutely odorless and works quite well for cleaning oneself. (I’ve long neglected the distinction between body wash and shampoo; as far as I can tell, either product works reasonably well for either purpose.) People with dry skin or delicate hair might find it too harsh, but for me it’s been fine. And of course there are plenty of alternatives; I chose sodium lauryl sulfate not after any real research but because I’d often seen it in ingredients lists for cleaning products and because I knew it was a detergent. There are real experts in this, whom one should consult if one has more refined needs; I’m not one of them.

The one drawback that seems worth mentioning is in the handling of the stuff. It came as a fine powder; when handling it some got into the air and mildly irritated my nose (though it still didn’t have any odor; the sensation was just of discomfort, not smell). Transferring 3 pounds of it to a storage container was unpleasant enough that I resorted to a dust mask (though doing it outdoors would also have worked; it wasn’t that bad). And although it dissolves pretty readily, it did still take some mixing. The stuff I got is supposedly food grade, at about $5/pound — yes, the government allows adding small amounts of detergent to food, though I sure won’t do that.

Frack the San Andreas

With the continuing slump in oil prices, a lot of drilling and fracking equipment is idle. What better use to put it to than triggering earthquakes?

There have been reports of this happening: in Oklahoma, some fracking operations were discontinued after they seemed to be triggering earthquakes. And it stands to reason that they could: injecting liquid directly into a seismic fault lubricates it, encouraging the fault to slip.

Avoiding this seems to usually be easy enough: there aren’t all that many major seismic faults in the world, and most oil and gas deposits that people want to frack aren’t next to one. The wells that seemed to be causing the trouble in Oklahoma were wastewater disposal wells; for that, injecting into a fault probably makes things easier since the water doesn’t have to crack rock to make its own paths away from the injection point; cracks already exist.

But though earthquakes are normally something to avoid, they also could be provoked on purpose. The way earthquakes work is that motion along a fault is interrupted by the rocks sticking. The stress builds up until the sticking points give way, which happens suddenly and with little or no warning, yielding an earthquake. In areas where the sticking is weak, earthquakes happen more often but are smaller. Lubricating the fault would push things in this direction: instead of decades of quiet followed by “The Big One”, there’d be a lot of little ones, which in sum total would not be nearly as damaging. At least that’d be the long-term goal.

In the short term there is of course a hitch with this: if it’s about time for the Big One, lubricating the fault for the first time will bring it on. This is not necessarily as bad as it sounds, because with deliberate lubrication the timing would be predictable. Injection wells would be drilled; injection pumps would be prepositioned at them; and at an appointed time the pumps would all be turned on. The public would have been warned ahead of time to bolt things down and to evacuate the area. If after a week or so of injection no earthquake resulted, the pumps would be stopped and people could return and relax. Or if The Big One happened they could return and rebuild. Either way they would know (at least this would be the hope) that they were no longer living on top of a hair trigger: if the fracking didn’t provoke it, it probably wouldn’t go off any time soon. After a couple of years, the exercise could be repeated; if it had not provoked anything, one might try increasing the amount of fluid injected.

Of course there are lots of things that could go wrong with this; the only real way to know whether it’d work would be to try it. And while the San Andreas Fault, the best known fault in the United States, would likely be the most valuable target, it’d be prudent to first try it on a fault that wasn’t valuable, so as to establish parameters like how many injection wells were necessary without having to issue too many evacuation warnings to too many people.

And of course this is not just the sort of thing people call “politically impossible”; it’s way beyond that. Even Mr. “Make America Great Again” would be most unlikely to advocate for it; it’s not his sort of big construction project. In today’s political environment, many things that work well and reliably are under attack, and this actually would be adventurous.