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Files and hacksaws

Files and hacksaws were two tools that were around the house when I was a kid, and puzzled me quite a bit: I couldn’t figure out how anybody did much with them. Later I learned: the secret is in what was missing: the vise. The piece being filed or hacksawed should be clamped firmly in a heavy, solid vise which is bolted down tightly — or some other arrangement that is equally rigid. (If the workpiece is big and heavy enough, nothing is needed to hold it, but that’s uncommon.) Then you can apply the sort of force that is needed to remove metal fast, without the workpiece escaping or getting into a mutual dance of vibration with the cutting tool.

There are of course various fine points to using these tools, but the workholding arrangement is what makes the difference between usability and unusability. It is not out of place to have a vise that costs more than all one’s files and hacksaws put together and weighs ten times as much as them.

(This is one of those things that people with a mechanical background know so well that they couldn’t even imagine not knowing it; but that still leaves the other >95% of the population.)

Oh, and while vise manufacturers seem to love to make toothy vise jaws, for civilized work a flat-faced jaw is usually best; that way it’s holding the workpiece with clamping force, not by digging its teeth in and damaging the surface.


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.

(A Russian translation of this article, by Timur Kadirov, is here).


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.


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