Day 1.002: Sea-Science In Super-Comfort

In this age of crippling wealth disparity and with the zeitgeist-du-jour trending toward treating capitalism with a derisive scoff, dare I devote a day’s typesmanship to exploring superyachts? Yes, the superyacht is a thing, and no, I can’t afford one either. And while my desire to poke my attention into the sparkling crannies of a billionaire’s plaything is pretty close to nil, the Earth 300 has tickled my interest. I mean… just look at that thing.

The first thing you’ll probably notice – after the gargantuan black orb of doom perched upon its back – is the lack of lounging decks, hot tubs and polo fields like you’d normally find aboard a watercraft for the stupid-rich. No, the Earth 300 is a proposed palace of science. If built, this would be the Starship Discovery of research vessels. Working on board would be like performing experiments and studying marine species in the Playboy Mansion, albeit with fewer bikini-clad girls swimming through the grotto.

Maybe. We’re not entirely sure about that. More below.

The largest yacht in the world, pictured above because I like including something to scowl at in all of my articles (see Tom Brady yesterday), is 590 feet long. It’s owned by the royal family of Abu Dhabi (of course), and while I’m sure it has hosted many wild parties akin to what you’d see the bad guy throw in a James Bond film, it really contributes nothing to the world of science. If Earth 300 gets built, it will make this luxury vessel look like a boat for ants. Really, really wealthy ants.

Earth 300 will be 300 meters long, so about 980 feet. It would house 450 passengers working in 22 laboratories on all sorts of ecological and oceanological mysteries. The observation deck will swing out on a cantilever, and that big glass marble on its back will be a 13-story “science sphere”. What happens inside a massive water-bound science sphere? Science!

I imagine it’s going to be a big motorcycle Globe of Death thing… but with science!

This monstrous craft is set to be powered by a molten salt reactor. I was hoping this actually involved really, really hot salt and that its fuel reserves would be measured in shakers. But alas, this is just a fancy way of saying it will run on atomic power. From what I can gather, a molten salt reactor won’t spew out a bunch of radioactive fumes, as these get absorbed by the molten salt. Great idea, though they don’t expect the technology to be ready until the end of this decade or perhaps beyond. In the meantime, the Earth 300 will be built with some other eco-friendly power source with plans to retrofit it once molten salt reactors are all invented and ready to deploy.

The article I found on molten salt reactors gets into far more detail than I can possibly make interesting. In the list of ‘Disadvantages’ to the technology, they note that a modified molten salt reactor could be used to create weapons-grade nuclear material. So a particularly crafty batch of Somalian pirates could board and conquer the Earth 300 and use its propulsion system to turn themselves into the next global nuclear power. Cool!

All they have to do is modify this thing. Easy!

The Earth 300 will cost around $500-700 million to create, which is why we’re looking at maybe having one of these things, not a fleet of them. Entrepreneur Aaron Olivera has already dropped $5 million just to create the design. Actual construction has yet to begin, but when the news of this massive vessel dropped back in April, Olivera was confident they’d be splashing forth and saving the environment by 2025. Yacht-maker Ivan Salas Jefferson insists they will be “making science sexy” with this superyacht. As if science isn’t sexy enough – have you seen the tuchus on Neil Degrasse-Tyson? Come on.

So what can we compare this to? Is there any other ginormous slab of modernist architecture out there, combing the waves for the secrets of how to save our sad little self-destructive human race? Well… not really on this scale. The closest comparison to Earth 300 also lies in the realm of the theoretical, though as far as conceptual floating labs go, the SeaOrbiter is pretty bad-ass.

Standing 51 meters high (31 of those below sea level), the SeaOrbiter is more of a floating sea-base than a superyacht. Think of it as the Death Star of the sea, but with a massive laboratory instead of a planet-destroying cannon, and staffed with marine biologists instead of stormtroopers. It would also deploy underwater robots to explore the seabed beneath it, so if that doesn’t bump it into the realm of badassery, nothing will.

The estimated cost of this glorious structure was only pinned at about $53 million – a bargain by massive floating science vessel standards. Construction was due to start in 2014 but as of today it’s still only floating around on paper. Except for the “eye” of the station – that’s the pointy thing on the top. That was slapped together in 2015 with the intent of shipping it off to Cherbourg until the rest of the station is put together. Maybe.

It strikes me that a superyacht meant for the decadent kibbitzing of the ultra-wealthy stands a lot more chance of being built than one meant to undertake ecological research. I don’t know how deep Mr. Olivera’s pockets are, but it’s going to take some serious moneybags to get the Earth 300 off the ground and into the sea.

Like, Rich Uncle Pennybags money.

Once it’s out there though, the Earth 300 should be fine. This is because in addition to the scientists and their trusty assistants, the vessel will also be hosting up to 20 VIPs in super-luxurious cabins. This could be Puff Daddy, Guy Fieri or maybe the guy who played Newman on Seinfeld, assuming NBC paid him justly. The cost will be $3 million per luxury trip, and the celebs (or random wealthy folks) will be encouraged to participate in the science. Because what could go wrong with that? This is where we might find a bevy of bikini-clad girls – up on that top deck with the best view of the ‘science sphere’.

Whatever – those are the folks who will keep the Earth 300 afloat and in business, assuming it ever finds its way into the ocean. For now we can dream of superyacht luxury being laid out for scientists looking out for our collective welfare instead of oil-rich princes who live in excess at the expense of our collective welfare. Dreaming’s better than nothing.

Day 967: Riding The Hood

originally published August 24, 2014

It was late one February night in 1992. Edmonton’s winters don’t even call their travel agent to book their flight out of town until at least March, so the snow on the ground was thick and slothful. My friend Josh White and I were exercising our teenage stupidity in a place we called Beggar’s Canyon – it was the local zoo’s parking lot, but in the winter months when the zoo lay stagnant, it was the ideal locale for spinning our cars upon the ice, and generally undertaking whatever foolishness we felt to be worthy of our adolescent immortality.

This night, we were hood-riding. That is exactly what it sounds like: one idiot drives the car while the other idiot lays flat upon the hood, trying to syphon just a droplet of action-movie adrenaline into our otherwise mundane lives. I know – don’t do this, kids. We were stupid, and living prior to the age of internet pornography. Were there any cosmic arbiter presiding over nights like those in Beggar’s Canyon we’d have escaped into adulthood with at least one limb missing apiece.

On one run in particular, while Josh was clinging to the hood, aiming a non-existent pistol at me through the glass, I hit a snowbank. Josh flew forward into the (fortunately) pillowy cold, taking the Buick hood ornament clean off with his crotch. The karmic judge let us off with a warning (and for Josh, an ass-bruise) that day. But ever since then, I have held an odd curiosity about hood ornaments. These seemingly useless statuettes upon the tip of a car’s nose perplexed me. Why did we even have them?

The first hood ornaments had a functional purpose. They were called motometers, and they were actually the car’s radiator cap. More specifically, they screwed into the radiator cap which was mounted on the outside of the hood, and displayed the temperature of the fluid within. The early motometers were ugly distractions, so manufacturers began jazzing them up with wings and funky knobs. The Boyce MotoMeter Company was the first to snag a patent for this technology back in 1912.

Early cars – and yes, this includes the uber-king of mass-production, the Ford Model T – didn’t have a water pump, so this was actually an important gauge for drivers to watch. As the art deco craze swept the world of design in the 1920’s and 30’s, the hood ornament became a fashion statement. Companies popped up specifically to design these tiny little statues that people could affix to their cars. They were the rear-view mirror dreamcatchers of their day.

Louis Lejeune Ltd. was one of these businesses, launching in 1910 in London. Of all the companies in this limited trade, Louis Lejeune is the only one still kicking, operating out of a foundry in Cambridgeshire. How they manage to stay in business now, when hardly any new automobiles seem to have hood ornaments, I have no clue. But their website is full of shiny creatures and goofy miscellany one could superglue to the front of their Prius, if they were so inclined.

The 1958 Chevy Bel Air was one of the first American cars to roll off the line without a hood ornament, foretelling the industry’s inevitable decline. They’re pretty, sure, but wholly unnecessary and incompatible with the sleek tilt of modern cars. I see this as a loss to our car-heavy society. The Europeans call them ‘mascots’, and that’s really what they are: a little guy (or gal, or creature) who can cheer you on and get you a little excited about whatever destination lies beyond its reach.

In the 70’s, restrictions began to be placed on hood ornaments, because in the 70’s restrictions were getting placed on everything fun. The Rolls Royce Spirit of Ecstasy ornament was mounted on a spring-loaded mechanism so that it would retract into the radiator shell if it got hit. These were the new rules in Europe, beginning in 1978. Hood ornaments were seen as pedestrian weapons – the bayonets that could do some damage if the 2000-pound bullet of a moving car didn’t do the trick. Even the Mercedes 3-pointed stars in Europe would fold back to be flush with the hood (sorry, the bonnet) if they’re hit.

While people could order their own little kits so that their hood ornaments could reflect their personality, car manufacturers kept companies like Boyce Motometer in the black by commissioning tiny chrome representations of their corporate logos for their cars as they rolled off the line. Some of the end results became as iconic as the cars themselves.

The aforementioned Spirit of Ecstasy, found on every Rolls Royce (probably – I’m not checking) since 1911, has a tragically romantic backstory. It centers around a man named John Walter Edward Douglas-Scott-Montagu, whom we’ll call John in the interest of saving space. John was married to a noblewoman named Lady Cecil Victoria Constance Kerr, but he was secretly in love with his secretary, a commoner named Eleanor Thornton. John was an auto enthusiast, working as editor of The Car Illustrated beginning in 1902. Their close circle of friends knew of the affair, but they kept quiet.

Custom hood ornaments were all the rage around 1910, so John asked his artist friend, Charles Sykes, to concoct something special for his 1910 Rolls Royce Silver Ghost. Sykes came up with a woman – modeled after Eleanor – in fluttering robes, with a finger to her lips to signify the secrecy of their relationship. John loved it. The mascot came to be known as The Whisper, and it presently sits in the National Motor Museum in Beaulieu, England. When Claude Johnson of Rolls Royce came to Sykes a year later to create something elegant to appear on every shiny new Rolls, Sykes once again used Eleanor as the model for what has come to be known as the Spirit of Ecstasy.

There is still a collector’s market for hood ornaments. As the internet and reality television have taught us, there is a collector’s market out there for almost anything. As radiator caps slipped under the hood, the hood ornament became the glimmering representation of the car company, nobly rising like a beacon at the front-most point of the realization of their care-crafted dream. Until some schmuck takes it out with his crotch in an act of teenage idiocy.

I wish more modern vehicles made use of the hood ornament, as I strongly believe it would give rise once again to the custom manufacturing industry. People would decorate their hoods with Pokemon, with Ironman, with little Don Draper heads. The front of one’s car could once again reflect the spirit of the driver. It’s always a good thing to know what kind of yutz you’re dealing with in a traffic situation. Sometimes, this kind of customization is a piece of valuable insight.

Day 953: Please Forget Me (When I’m Gone)

originally published August 10, 2014

There are a few moments in my life that I wish could be collectively forgotten by all who had witnessed them. Throwing up in my high school parking lot after downing a half-bottle of Southern Comfort at 1:00 in the afternoon. Shooting that spitball in the sixth grade that missed my target and thwacked my teacher in the face. Accepting that dare to chug back a large KFC gravy like it was Gatorade.

But those are the curses strung like sooty leis around the neck of my conscience – the snarky memories that promise to surge into my brain at unwanted moments, when I’m otherwise feeling good and groovy. We’ve all got them, and some are even more awful to imagine than the gravy thing. The question I’m asking today is how much are we legally allowed to wipe from the societal record?

The “Right To Be Forgotten” sounds like a foray into self-imposed hermitism, of declaring one’s intention to leave the grid and skitter out of civilization’s crosshairs. And while that can play into it, the right to be forgotten is a far less dramatic and demanding concept, yet nearly as tricky to achieve. What about simply yanking something off the record? Booting the search engine results that conceal that most jagged bone of the skeleton in your closet? It’s not so simple.

The European Union addressed this issue early in the internet age, adopting something called the European Data Protection Directive in 1995. This is a lengthy bill, full of rollicking puns and nineteen colorful applications of the word “fuck-bucket”. Actually, I haven’t read the thing, but I’m sure it’s a laugh riot from start to finish. It sketches out that fine twisted squiggle between privacy and transparency, offering a legitimized perspective of where human rights trump the right to knowledge. And if you’re someone who’d like to keep a little nugget of your past quiet, it’s a really good thing.

The European standard places control of one’s past squarely in the hands of the individual. This isn’t to say that a serial killer can have his name expunged from all future records, but it does allow someone to pluck out the traceable elements of their past and effectively ease their disappearance. It won’t relieve you of your spot in the government register (and thus snuff out your tax obligations), but it could help you flee an invasive stalker or ditch that ex-husband who keeps leaving you Air Supply-heavy mixtapes in your mailbox.

Earlier this year, a man named Mario Costeja Gonzàlez asked Google to remove a link to a 1998 article that discussed the foreclosure of his home. It was a true story, it just didn’t make Mario look so hot; the fact that he later repaid every peseta of his debt and righted the ship of his credit wasn’t mentioned in the article, but instead the link simply served as a testament to his darkest financial days. Google refused – the article was accurate (if outdated) and they shouldn’t have to remove it.

Not so, claimed the European Court of Justice. The EU privacy law allows for a person to request the removal of such information, even if that info is true. An Irishman, Gerry Hutch, was similarly successful in getting the link to his Wikipedia page (which tells how he was a principle suspect in two of the largest armed robberies in the nation’s history) removed from Google’s search results. The man presently spends his time volunteering in Dublin’s inner city, working with poor kids to keep them off drugs – even if he was guilty of those heists (which was never proven), he should be allowed to have those big maybes taken off his record.

Or should he?

Two countries have rather vocally spoken out against the scrubbing of one’s online biographical factoids: Argentina and the USA. Europe classified their directive as a component of their human rights laws, but in America it’s a very different story. Protecting the sanctity of the Google search is not so much about protecting data, it’s about freedom of speech. After all, isn’t the act of blacking out search results a form of censorship?

The first time this popped up in American law books was the case of Melvin v. Reid. A former prostitute named Gabrielle Darley was in the process of putting her wild past behind her in the autumn of 1925, when a silent ‘social conscience’ film called The Red Kimona was released, depicting her story and using her actual name for the character. Gabrielle sued the producer and won an impressive settlement. This would suggest a similar stance to the present European embrace of one’s right to be forgotten. But free speech is a more precious gem than most in the eyes of America. It’s the one you simply can’t mess with.

When William James Sidis, about whom I have written before, read a piece about himself in the New Yorker, he asked to have it yanked. He was a child prodigy, raised with his impressive intelligence perpetually under his scientist father’s microscope, and achieving a modicum of fame at a time when people actually cared about child prodigies. Now fully grown up, Sidis didn’t want that embarrassing chapter of his life rehashed, and when the New Yorker refused to pull the story, Sidis brought them to court. Tough luck, the court told him. You can’t just run away from your celebrity because you want to.

It’s a fuzzy area in which basic rights are poised to take a slight smack no matter where the law ends up. No one wants their future potential employers to read about that time they were let off with a warning for public urination, but one could argue that those employers have a right to know. I faced a situation on this site in which I identified the founder of the World Finger Jousting Federation with his name and photo. The man contacted me, advised me that his present career path (flying fighter jets for NATO) didn’t jive with his earlier exploits, and asked me kindly to remove the photo. I was not legally obligated to comply – I was simply regurgitating fact. But I yanked it down anyway, because I’m just that nice.

In Germany, lawyers for a man named Wolfgang Werlé tried to push Wikipedia to yank Wolfgang’s name off the entry for Walter Sedlmayr, a man Wolfgang had been convicted for murdering. A 1973 Federal Constitutional Court ruling had allowed for a suppression of a criminal’s name once he’d served his time – at least in the media, which was all that mattered back then. According to the EU rules, Wikipedia would have to comply.

But here’s the catch: Wikipedia has zero holdings in Germany. They are an American-based company, and as such they have not had to appear in German court to defend their right to publish info. Freedom of Speech wins in this case, and Wolfgang’s name is still etched in the legacy of what he did.

I have no problem with this – we all have stuff we’d like to see wiped off the books, and in many cases it would be a harmless act of history-smudging to do so. But when someone takes another life, I think that right to sweeping the dust under the rug has been relinquished.

But that photo of me barfing into the punchbowl at my cousin’s wedding? Come on Google – it’s been years now. Cut me a break.

Day 948: Tales From The Crapper

originally published August 5, 2014

This morning I am balanced upon rickety stilts at a creative crossroads. Do I unfold a tale of Vietnam War bravery and the enduring flame of the unsnuffable human spirit? Or do I write about toilets?

Those who know me are aware of my unflinching love of a powerful narrative. I have frequently slapped upon my little corner of the world-wide-windowpane stories of survival, of heroism and of triumph against gruesome odds. But they also know how much I love cheap laughs, and after yesterday’s gnarly story of necrophilia and cannibalism I feel it more appropriate to ruminate on flying poo-bags and assorted low-bar humor-jabs than to contemplate the nightmares of grizzly torture and starvation.

So poop it is, decorum and dignity be damned. Let’s start the turd-fest rolling with one of the more misunderstood gents of bathroom history, the infamous Mr. Thomas Crapper.

One of the most joyously jocular strips of fluttering trivia I learned upon the nefariously untrustworthy schoolyard at recess was that Thomas Crapper invented the toilet, and the defecatory euphemism known as ‘crap’ is derived from his name. What a glorious gem of lexicographical synergy that would be, were it even remotely true. While flush toilets have been bubbling through different incarnations since the Neolithic age, we owe a lot more credit to 16th century author John Harrington’s first commode, and to 18th century watchmaker Alexander Cummings’ s-shaped plumbing innovation than to Crapper’s later work.

But Crapper, a London-based plumber, was essential in popularizing the flushing devices around the modern world, and he did receive a few patents for improvements on the technology. Notable among these was the floating ballcock.

The word crap predates Thomas’s birth by several centuries. A blend of Dutch and French origin, it referred to chaff, weeds and other natural detritus. As another word for human poopery, it first showed up in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1846, when Thomas was only 12 years old. Crapper’s connection with crap is merely a wonky coincidence.

One thing Thomas Crapper never put up for debate was the question of posture. While more natural and socially groovy than any other position, the seated jettison of bodily jetsam is not necessarily the ideal, health-wise. For one thing, research has shown that “dispensing” of one’s “payload” through the “bombardier doors” in the sitting position requires at least three times as much physical strain as doing so in the squatting position. You don’t want to over-strain; forcing it can overload your cardiovascular system, induce fainting, or cause your retinas to detach. I have no evidence that this has ever happened, but why take the chance? Besides, no one wants their ultimate exit off the grand stage of life to be like Elvis’s.

Fortunately, there’s a product you can buy.

The Squatty Potty is a revolutionary new device that props your legs into a squatting position, which they claim leads to quicker, cleaner evacuation out your proverbial back door. Supposedly this is a benefit to hemorrhoid suffers, people with IBS and those unfortunate folks who have been diagnosed with spastic pelvic floor syndrome. What the Squatty Potty people don’t tell you is that their dynamic invention already existed, though it was known by the cryptic name “footstool”.

The decision to sit or squat is generally a cultural one though. The western world likes its seats; they’re sophisticated and traditional and they don’t involve the use of superfluous bathroom furniture. That said, germophobes should note that squatting involves less contact with the physical seat, or even no contact at all in the hole-in-the-floor facilities which are the norm in the Far East. There’s something to be said for that.

Minimized physical contact with the icky crawly citizens of unidentified crotch-zones is also embedded into the on-going search for the ultimate women’s urinal.

The Pollee female urinal system comes to us courtesy of the Denmark Roskilde Music Festival. Apparently women were blasting golden jets of reimagined beer all over the 2010 festival grounds. Organizers were looking for some method to provide a mostly touch-free, semi-private experience in which women could quickly dispose of the beverages they’d consumed a few hours earlier.

They came up with the Pollee: a four-station urinal that allows women to assume a semi-squat overtop of it with minimal effort (and just in case, balance-saving handles are provided). While I imagine there might be some confusion regarding clothing – it looks like all lower-half wardrobe choices would need to be bunched down below the Pollee – I applaud the attempt at equalizing the peeing field, in which guys have always had the anatomical advantage of ease.

While we’re hop-skipping through the weird history of loo-lore, I felt the Pittsburgh Toilet deserves a mention. These were fixtures of pre-WWII Steel City – basement thrones with no surrounding privacy walls, usually plopped next to a shower facility and big ol’ sink. These were restrooms with a strategy.

The idea behind the Pittsburgh toilet was to allow miners to return home, enter through the basement and clean themselves thoroughly before wandering upstairs to greet the family, free of soot and grime and internal waste. As this entire facility was intended for solitary use by one gunked-up breadwinner at a time, there was no need to construct a private enclosure for the toilet. If the house was sold to someone who didn’t toil underground for a living, hopefully a few architectural adjustments were made when they built their basement into a rec room.

Lastly, I’d like to reiterate how wonderful travel can be, provided one sticks to civilization. To wit, I present the flying toilet. This is a cutesy name for a practice that is very common in the slummier regions around Nairobi, Kenya, as well as around Haiti and other impoverished, non-toileted areas. In these areas, where even proper outhouse structures aren’t kicking around, people poop into plastic bags, which they then toss into ditches, or as far away from themselves as possible.

I can’t even list everything that’s wrong with this system. The bags end up in piles, attracting flies. Sometimes they burst open and splatter into water pipes, giving a gruesome new meaning to the concept of recycling. People can get thwacked with these bags. One conglomeration of flying toilet bags on a railroad track in Kibera caused a train to derail, killing two people. And the possibility for disease? Again – this is why I stay close to four-star hotels in nations that are not known for flying poop-bombs.

And so ends my sincere endeavor to enlighten the mood on this site. Flying poop-bombs. Some days I worry I’m learning too much about this world.

Day 921: The Luddites Rage Against The Machines

originally published July 9, 2014

You don’t often hear the term ‘Luddite’ in conversation anymore. The word has come to represent one who is resistant to new technologies or despises them altogether. There simply aren’t as many of those people around anymore. While I was spending my youth hunched in front of a luminously green screen, fighting off orcs in Ultima IV or inputting some three-page BASIC program from a magazine, it made sense for my parents’ generation to scoff at such frivolity. Now we’re all getting soaked on the technological flume ride.

Being a Luddite today takes a lot of work. One would have to give up most modern means of communication, sacrifice access to history’s greatest research tool (this website, of course) and deny oneself the most extensive collection of free pornography ever known to humankind. Also, one may need to look up what the hell a Luddite actually is.

Fortunately, due to my commitment to making this site the nexus of all human knowledge (at least on 1000 various topics… well, 999 if you don’t count my final column, in which I’ll be ranting at length about all the people I know who piss me off), I’m here to help. The story of the Luddites combines my two favorite morsels of history: angry, violent people and a grotesque over-reaction by the government.

The Luddites showed up in England in the early 19th century, right around the time Napoleon was collecting the chunks of Europe that his army hadn’t yet destroyed. But their origin story (which may or may not be a piece of fiction) dates back to 1779 when a weaver from Anstey (near Leicester) named Ned Ludd unleashed his rage on a pair of stocking frames, used for industrial knitting. The story goes that he was either being whipped for idleness – a common motivational technique prior to the advent of posters involving group parachuting formations – or else he was being taunted by local youths.

With the former explanation, Ned looks like a working-class hero, rising up against his sadistic and exploitive employers to crush their livelihood in an act of extremist protest. With the latter explanation, Ned comes off looking like a wuss-ass who took out his post-bullying frustration on a couple of large machines. I’m thinking the throngs of people who would years later make Ned Ludd an icon would prefer to believe the whipping story.

As soon as the Industrial Revolution settled its fat ass into the English economy and all but bumped local artisans right off the fiscal couch, an air of displeasure began to creep into the workforce. These were people who had once toiled for hours every day to produce clothing, draperies, blankets and so on – people who prided themselves on their final products and set their own measures of success. But the age of the artisan was fading to black, and that black was oozing promptly and dependably from the sooty towers of the factories that were making the same products for a fraction of the cost.

And so these one-time craftsmen found themselves often working at the very factories that had derailed their chosen career paths. It was an unstoppable force – this was a veritable tsunami of collective progress that had overtaken the entire global economy. These disgruntled factory drones were not driven to action by a sociopathic bent toward violence or an actual desire to hurt other humans. They were desperate people, watching the future they’d dreamed of get drowned in a sea of machinery and mayhem. Beginning around 1811, the Luddites would meet and plan acts of sabotage against the factories and mills that were popping up like smoke-spewing zits all across England.

General Ludd, or King Ludd, became the emblem of the oppressed. The stories of his heroic defeat of two knitting machines in 1779 became legend – the guy was even rumored to reside in Sherwood Forest alongside Robin Hood. Of course the oldest actual documentation of Ned Ludd’s exploits are from 1811 in John Blackner’s History of Nottingham. But the workers had their symbol, and it was Ned Ludd’s name they signed to any letters or proclamations by the working class. Ned was blamed whenever a machine was smashed in protest.

The violence spread: from Nottinghamshire to Yorkshire, from Lancashire to Middleton. The British Army stepped in, but mill owners and factory owners were terrified – they were grossly outnumbered by angry workers, and these acts of sabotage were endangering their profits, their lives, and the natural course of the Industrial Revolution. At one point there were more soldiers fighting the Luddites than were fighting Napoleon’s forces on the Iberian peninsula. One side had to give.

Property damage wasn’t stemming the tide of capitalism; it was only a matter of time before the Luddites upped the ante. In 1812 a trio of Luddites led by George Mellor assassinated a mill owner in West Yorkshire. The mill owner, a guy named William Horsfall, had boasted that he would “ride up to his saddle in Luddite blood”. George Mellor responded by shooting Horsfall in the dick. I’m not exaggerating – that’s actually what happened. The government had had enough. It was time to show off their might.

Over sixty men were rounded up and placed on trial at York in January of 1813. Some of the men were true Luddites (George Mellor was one), while others had absolutely zero connection to the movement. That didn’t matter – this was a show trial. There was little effort concentrated on the actual innocence or guilt of each individual defendant. The government was looking for a splashy advertisement against machine sabotage (or worse). Everyone charged was found guilty of something, and they were either executed or shipped off to Australia.

The British government quickly stamped its ink on the Frame Breaking Act, which made industrial sabotage into a capital crime. Lord Byron, who was disgusted at the cruddy treatment of the defendants in the York trial, went on record as being against this Act, marking him as one of the only highly-placed defenders of the Luddites. The movement was effectively quashed, with only a handful of man-on-machine violence over the ensuing few years. Progress won out, just as it always does.

It should be noted that many economists believe in the ‘Luddite Fallacy’, which claims that if people lose their jobs because of technology, that would mean the industry-wide cost of production would also drop. That means lower prices, greater demand, and therefore more people required to run the machines to meet the demand. So it all balances out, at least on paper.

I for one welcome our computer overlords, and only feel driven to violence against my machinery when it breaks down or necessitates more work on my part. I’ll never give up my spell-check, my cut-n-paste, or my ability to distract myself from actual work via an avalanche of mind-numbing Reddit posts. I will never be a modern-age Luddite. There’s just no fun in it.

Day 920: Getting Dirty With QWERTY

originally published July 8, 2014

Just as I’m sure all guitar players secretly covet the 1932 cast aluminum ‘Frying Pan’ electric guitar unleashed by Rickenbacker that changed the very shape of modern music, I feel we writers should become equally as intimate with the lush history of our instruments. Unfortunately, the ancestry of Microsoft Word appears to be uninspiringly bland, while researching the birth of the typewriter reveals a plethora of names, all claiming to be the ‘first’.

Besides, I spent many of the early formative years of my writing addiction swimming in the white-on-indigo sea of Wordperfect, and due to the frantic and clumsy nature of my fat fingers I have resisted using a typewriter for decades. Besides, I publish my work online; a typewriter would be little more than a superfluous display of unnecessary retro-ism. I’m no hipster purist.

But there is one common thread that has tied together my word-weaving experience, from that first robins-egg-blue Underwood manual clacker to the up-to-date Computronic-9000 (bundled with Lode Runner!) that I use today: the QWERTY keyboard. This strategic splat of letters, numbers and functional squiggles has a digestible backstory, and today I’m cramming that story into my gullet. Because I can.

Christopher Latham Sholes and Carlos Glidden concocted a genuine predecessor to the modern typewriter in 1867 when they arranged a two-row piano-like keyboard to trigger swinging arms (known as typebars) at a blank page. There was an obvious flaw in the design, thanks to his alphabetical arrangement of the letters: odd numbers and N-Z on the upper row, even numbers and A-M on the lower. The only punctuation offered was a hyphen and a period. But when neighboring arms were flung at the paper in tight succession, they’d collide and jam. This proved to be a monumental pain the ass, especially for every word that contained the letter combination ‘ST’.

There’s about a seven year span between the introduction of Sholes’ first prototype and the first mass-produced unit, made by weapons manufacturer E. Remington and Sons. Throughout that time, everyone involved with the project tried to scooch the letters around to reduce jams and tweak the machine’s efficiency so that it would be something consumers would actually want to use.

The first time I asked someone about the strange placement of letters on a typewriter I was told it was a conspiracy to slow people down. The opposite is true: not only does the present placement reduce jams in antiquated typing machines, it also encourages frequent alternation between both hands, which speeds up the process. The fingers aren’t allowed to get complacent on the home row either, given that ‘A’ is the only vowel to be found there.

Sholes and Glidden tried bumping all the numbers to the top row, the vowels (including Y) on the next, and the consonants along the bottom two rows. When Remington’s mechanics got hold of the unit in 1873, they came up with a layout that is strikingly similar to the one we use today, but with the A and Z keys swapped, and the period where the R is today, while the R gets bumped to the far-right of the bottom row, like some typographical leper. By the time the final product was rolled out, that weirdness was fixed and the typewriter looked pretty much like this:

Because each letter sat upon a lever, they couldn’t be stacked one atop the other. This explains the staggered tilt of most keyboards today; the letters had to be laid out that way for those old typewriters, and it would have created an entirely new learning curve to structure successive keyboards differently. We’re all rooted to those dusty Sholes & Glidden units, some 140 years later.

A few tricks were woven into these old beasts in order to extend their capabilities; becoming a proficient typist meant more than increasing accuracy and word count – there were insider moves one had to learn. Like the fact that there were no keys for the numerals ‘0’ and ‘1’. An uppercase ‘O’ and a lowercase ‘L’ had to do the trick. The semicolon wasn’t there, as one could type a colon, hit backspace and punch a comma overtop the mark. Likewise, an exclamation mark could be made with an apostrophe punched over a period.

Since the backspace key was slow and cumbersome on early typewriters, manufacturers designed the carriage to only advance when the space bar was released. This created the trick of holding down the space bar to type the multiple characters needed for your ‘!’ and ‘;’ symbols. The ‘0’ made it onto keyboards early in the typewriter’s history, but many typewriters continued to omit the ‘1’ and ‘!’ right through the 1970’s.

The reason the QWERTY arrangement persisted into the 20th century was not because of technological need, but more because Remington knew how to build a good typewriter business. There were competing units that didn’t rely on jammable typebars, like Thomas Edison’s 1872 electric print-wheel device that would later form the guts of Teletype machines, or the 1893 Blickensderfer typewriter pictured above, which used a cylindrical type wheel. The Blickensderfer people had their home row read ‘DHIATENSOR’ because those ten letters could create 70% of all English words.

It’s actually a bit surprising that the Blickensderfer strategy didn’t take off. Their system utilized only 250 parts, compared to about 2500 in a standard Remington unit. This made their machines smaller and lighter than others. The company also developed the first electric typewriter in 1902. I can only assume it was a result of marketing and corporate might that allowed Remington to reign supreme, despite having what some might consider to be inferior technology. Maybe it was the name.

The QWERTY keyboard actually favors lefties – one of the only scraps of modern convenience which does. While the ideal typing rhythm involves both hands being put to work, there are thousands of English words that can be typed with only the left hand, but only around 200 that can be typed with only the right.

There are a number of international variants to the QWERTY unit. The Canadian Multilingual Standard keyboard has no caret (‘^’) over the ‘6’, but instead sticks the question mark up there. I have been typing in Canada for most of my 39 years, but have yet to ever make use of such a beast.

Many Central European countries use a QWERTZ layout, in which the Y and Z are swapped due to Z’s more prominent appearance in the German language. French speakers in Europe use the AZERTY layout, which not only swaps the Q and A, but also drops the M beside the L, designating the lower-right neighborhood as the keyboard’s punctuation ghetto.

Perhaps there’s a more intuitive way to sprawl these letters out for quicker typing. Maybe Mr. Blickensderfer had it right when he crammed the ten most popular letters onto the same row. But it’s not likely that old dogs can learn new typing tricks; we’ll probably be embracing QWERTY for generations, all because of those damn typebars.

Day 911: The TP Divide

originally published June 29, 2014

This could be the most important article I will ever write. Far beyond the knuckle-clacking tensions of dog people vs. cat people, Shelly Long fans vs. Kirstie Alley fans, or bacon-eaters vs. people who don’t know better, there lies the conflict of toilet paper orientation. The solution offered by both camps (the ‘over the roll’ and ‘under the roll’ dichotomy) can divide an otherwise happy household.

Toilet paper orientation is more than a product of habit; my son spent the first 18 years of his life beneath a devout over-the-roll roof, yet he prefers to mount his TP so that he’s pulling from under it. This is a domestic deal-breaker, a precarious pendulum that could sever a marriage quicker than a differing of perspectives on child-rearing.

I would have thought this to be a matter of inexplicable preference, an open-and-shut debate. But digging through the matter uncovers a wealth of psychological, anthropological and socioeconomic dissection, as well as some math. This is a legitimate topic, worthy of at least a thousand words of analysis. As I have happily devoted many of the last 910 days to the careful nit-pickery of the utterly trivial, I’m happy to unfurl the secrets of this issue.

Notre Dame University has what sounds like a brilliant sociology course on its calendar: The Social Construction of Reality. In that course they look at the basic application of sociological principles to things like personal space, urinal etiquette and of course, toilet paper orientation. Students explore, through their own research and through the weird research of others, gender, race, age and social class distinctions in these seemingly innocuous day-to-day affairs. There is a surprising amount of research on this divisive domestic issue.

Psychologists liken one’s preference in roll direction to other near-unconscious likes, such as how one eats an Oreo cookie or the order in which one consumes their M&Ms. The fact is, we can deviate from our norms with most of these preferences. If you’re an Oreo pull-aparter who’s faced with a particularly chilly cookie that will crumble no matter how gently or forcefully you try to twist it apart, you’ll probably just munch the cookie whole rather than skip the experience completely. But people get damn protective with their toilet paper rolls. Archie Bunker infamously battled with Meathead because Archie preferred the over-the-roll setup and his son-in-law went the other way. Like some commie pinko.

Let’s have a look at the advantages of each. If you hang your toilet paper so that the free end hangs over the roll, there is less possibility that your knuckles will come in contact with the bathroom wall behind the roll, thus transferring germs to the hand that will almost immediately be touching your most nether of regions. Also – and this especially applies to rolls that are on the opposite wall from the throne, the over-the-roll configuration makes it easy to spot the roll’s end for quick grabbing and less leaning.

If you’ve ever worked as a chambermaid in a hotel (and yes, I most certainly have), you know that an over-the-roll arrangement can be neatly folded back to demonstrate that housekeeping was on the premises. Manufacturers prefer the over formation because if they have included their logo or monogram in the paper pattern, it displays properly that way. Of the people I have spoken to on this matter, the germ thing and the ease-of-use are the two most salient points to their stance. That and “it’s just right” – I heard that one a few times.

But what about those who prefer the under?

The under-spoolers will point out that it looks neater. From the front, all you’ll see is a puffy little white cylinder, while the asymmetrical ‘dangly part’ will be up against the wall, or – if the bathroom’s proprietor is a neat-freak – tucked high enough so as to render it invisible. Cats and small children are less likely to grab hold of the roll and unfurl it into a pillowy heap. Also, in an RV situation, having the roll’s more vulnerable side pressed up against the wall lowers the possibility of the entire thing unrolling on the highway.

The Orange County Register cited one study that claims that over the roll is more economical. A British company did a similar investigation and found the opposite to be true. Advocates on both sides of this fierce debate will claim that they use less paper their way, and thusly they are more kind to the environment. They’ll also swear that their way makes it easier to tear the perforation. You can start to see how vocal and impassioned this debate can be. I wouldn’t be surprised if the over/under debate was partly what led to the American Civil War.

The simple truth is this: in terms of mass acceptance, over-the-roll wins, hands-down. I’m looking at the results of several surveys on the matter, all of which give the edge to the over crowd, with between 51% and 75% preferring not to touch that filthy back wall. One of these surveys was announced at the 82nd Academy Awards – with a 72% edge to the over. (That was the year The Hurt Locker beat out Inglourious Basterds for Best Picture, so take this survey with a grain of something)

Between men and women aged 21-34, women feel more strongly about selecting ‘over’, with 81% of women and 71% of men leaning that way. Between 35-44 the men become more vocal, with 81% of men and only 65% of women preferring over. A survey by Cottonelle states that men are more likely to be annoyed when the roll is hung the “wrong” way. There’s also a strong economic perspective: one in-depth study showed that while 60% of people who earn $50,000 a year or more will prefer the over-the-roll set-up, a whopping 73% of people earning less than $20,000 a year will want their paper hanging under.

This actually made the ballot in a local Saskatoon election, with 80% of voters selecting ‘over’. One teenager ran the numbers and found that liberals tend to lean toward over, with conservatives leaning toward under. I don’t know what’s more fascinating – that there is such a distinct bias or that so many people have researched this issue in such depth.

When advice columnist Ann Landers addressed the issue in one column, she came out in favor of rolling under. Then, after roughly a gazillion-jillion irate letters streamed in, she changed her position a few weeks later. This cited another gazillion-jillion letters, and upon her retirement she swore that the toilet paper issue was the most contentious and controversial topic she’d ever touched upon in her 31 years on the job.

Celebrities who have stated a preference for over include Jay Leno, Ty Pennington, Tori Spelling and Princess Diana’s butler, Paul Burrell. The under crowd includes Dean McDermott, journalist Gene Weingarten, and Oprah Winfrey. And – because she was asked – Martha Stewart has come out on the side of the ‘over’. I think that seals the matter right there: over wins.

Actually, the real winner is Curtis Batts, a Dallas inventor who came up with the easily-swiveling Tilt-A-Roll, which allows people to swap the roll to their preference in one easy twist. That’s how things get done in this world – by people who can resolve age-old conflicts with one stroke of genius. Well done, Curtis.

Day 884: How A Massive Jet Plane Became A Glider

originally published June 2, 2014

To my knowledge, there has never been a commercial airline disaster on a flight that has departed from or been on its way to Edmonton, the city where my fingers do most of their keyboard-thumping. One could take that as optimistic reassurance or as a terrifying taunt to the Odds Gods, depending on one’s personal perspective. But I recently learned that my city’s perfect streak of flight safety was very nearly foiled in 1983.

It was Flight 143, a routine flight from Montreal that was run every day. The aircraft was a top-end Boeing 767, a model which hadn’t yet seen two years in the air. The plane wasn’t shiny-new, but it was new enough that mechanical trouble should not have been a concern. In this case it was, though the technical flaws on the plane were minor compared to the very human glitch of not pouring enough fuel into the tank.

Flight 143’s tale is terrifying, but it’s a triumph of pilot awesomeness that prevents it from being a tragedy. Canadian aero-lore calls this the story of the Gimli Glider. I call it the near-miss bullet that almost pierced my city’s pristine record of commercial air safety.

The fuel tanks of a 767 are regulated by the Fuel Quantity Indicator System (the FQIS). There are two channels which cross-check with one another, though the plane could be flown with either of them failing. If the FQIS fizzles entirely, the fuel gauges in the cockpit don’t work. I’m no pilot, but I suspect this would be kind of a big deal. On this particular aircraft, the FQIS was half-functional, but due to a sequence of botched last-minute maintenance (which made it non-functional) and faulty communication between ground crew and air crew, the flight was allowed to proceed.

To calculate how much fuel would be needed to get to Edmonton, pilot Bob Pearson and the Montreal ground crew had to do a little math. They crunched the numbers and determined that 22,300 pounds of fuel should do the trick. This calculation was done and redone – all with meticulous precision, except for one small catch: the conversion rate was wrong. Boeing 767’s were the first aircraft to be outfitted for the metric system, to which Canada was presently in the process of converting. The correct amount of fuel they’d require was 22,300 kilograms, not pounds. They had roughly half that. You can see how this might cause an issue.

Captain Pearson, along with First Officer Maurice Quintal, boarded the plane with full awareness of the glitchy FQIS. They guided the plane through takeoff and bumped it up to about 41,000 feet. It was smooth sailing until they were over Red Lake, Ontario – just shy of the Manitoba border and roughly halfway through their voyage. That’s when the warning system beeped, advising Pearson and Quintal there was a fuel pressure problem on the left side of the plane. No problem, they simply turned off what they assumed was a defective fuel pump; in the air, gravity would take care of feeding fuel to the engines.

Then another alarm sounded, indicating a similar failure to the right engine. Now the pilots elevated their internal threat level to ‘uncomfortable’, and requested an emergency landing in Winnipeg. That’s when they were both surprised by an unfamiliar – and ominously loud – bonging sound. It was a total engine failure. Time to ascend from ‘uncomfortable’ to ‘pants-poopingly worried’.

Then came the next problem.

The magnificent new Boeing 767 also featured an Electronic Flight Instrument System, which meant that most cockpit controls and gauges operated on power that was generated by the plane’s engines. No engine power, no cockpit power. A few things still worked, but some of the more important doohickeys – like the vertical speed indicator, which tells the pilot how quickly the plane is plummeting toward the earth – were out. The two pilots hadn’t been trained on this sort of flukey disaster, and even the operations manual included nothing about how to land without engines. By now, even the 61 passengers on board had to be freaking out. Luckily, Captain Bob had a plan.

He happened to possess hundreds of flight-hours in glider aircraft, and felt he could successfully maneuver the plane safely to the planet’s surface using those skills. First Officer Maurice may or may not have been on board, but it was their only shot so he set about calculating their chances of making it to Winnipeg in one piece. Those numbers didn’t work out in their favor. Luckily, Maurice remembered he’d been stationed at a Royal Canadian Air Force station in Gimli, which was very much within reach. If they could make it to that base – which was now closed – they could land on the runway.

Except…

Yes, RCAF Station Gimli was now Gimli Motorsports Park, and that day they were hosting a massive race event held by the Winnipeg Sports Car Club. The decommissioned runways had become a racing track and a parking lot full of cars, trucks and RVs. It would have to be cleared in time for the plane’s arrival.

As the folks on the ground frantically tried to get the hell out of the way, Captain Bob dropped the landing gear. Naturally, because nothing was destined to work right that day, the front gear didn’t lock into place – they’d had to use a gravity drop, since the hydraulic deployment system was dependent on the now-dead electrical power supply. As they approached the runway, it became clear that they were moving too fast. They were also too high, though not high enough to execute a 360-degree circle to buy time and slow down.

Captain Bob executed a forward slip – a glider technique that involves tilting into the wind while raising the opposite wing. This maintains the craft’s trajectory while using air resistance to cut down the speed. It’s a standard glider move, but not so easy to translate to a 767. Luckily, Captain Bob was one kick-ass glider pilot.

Without functioning flaps, without a proper landing gear, and without a whole lot of hope that they’d make it out alive, Captain Bob touched down and immediately stood up on the brake pedals. This blew the rear tires right away. The nose wheel, which had never clicked into place, collapsed into its wheel well, causing the nose of the plane to bounce and scrape along the runway. This turned out to be a good thing – had the nose wheel locked into place, they probably never could have slowed the plane down in time to keep from flying off the runway toward the auto racing crowd.

As it is, friction did the job. They slowed to a halt, and apart from a small nose fire and about ten minor injuries as people tried descending the inflatable emergency slides (keep in mind, the rear of the plane was tilted way up in the air now, as there was no front wheel), everyone was fine.

Air Canada blamed the pilots and ground crew, however the Aviation Board of Canada pointed their bureaucratic finger at the airline. Pearson and Quintal were suspended, though they appealed that. They were reinstated, and even worked together on a later flight. The plane – now known as the Gimli Glider – was repaired and put back to work, finally retiring to the Mojave Desert in 2008. A huge celebration was held for the plane’s decommissioning, including a Gimli parade and an invitation for Pearson, Quintal, and three of the flight’s six flight attendants to take the plane’s final voyage to its resting place in Arizona.

It was likely the most terrifying day in the lives of everyone involved, yet through the mastery of the flight crew, everyone survived. And my city’s record remains clean.

Day 876: Big Ben – The Boisterous Bell In The Belfry

originally published May 25, 2014

If your first instinct when you looked at the above photo was that you were looking at London’s famous Big Ben, I’m afraid you’re mistaken. Bemused Brits would scoff and toss old scones at you. Chances are you’ve never seen Big Ben. Until 2012 that structure was known simply as “the Clock Tower at the Palace of Westminster”. That year it was renamed Elizabeth Tower in honor of our present queen’s Diamond Jubilee. But ‘Big Ben’ is not the tower, and it’s not even the clock mechanism within it. Big Ben is just the bell.

The structure that Big Ben calls home is probably the best-known building in the entirety of England – the one structure you can safely use as an establishing shot if the next scene of your movie takes place in London. But the bell in its innards is the real star of the show; “Big Ben” represents London and London alone. Well, and Pittsburgh, but that’s a different Big Ben.

My wife asked me a question the other day, knowing full well I’d be using Google and not my musty, decaying storeroom of a memory to produce an answer: how the hell did they get Big Ben to the top of that tower using 19th century technology? I did my due diligence and found the solution, and along the way I learned all sorts of strange things about this brilliantly cliché piece of architecture.

Augustus Pugin was not the first architect called when the Palace of Westminster burned almost to the ground in 1834; Charles Barry did the majority of the work. But Pugin was the Judd Apatow of Gothic Revival mastery, in that everything he touched seemed to please and delight his target audience. Charles Barry (who was probably known by his friends as ‘Chuck Barry’) handled the big picture, but the guts of the palace – the wallpaper, the furnishings, the snuggly little details – that was all Pugin. In 1852, Barry asked Pugin for one more touch: the clock tower.

Shortly after designing the thing, Pugin went mad. Modern biographers attribute a possible case of hyperthyroidism (and maybe the lingering effects from a bout of syphilis), but at the time no one knew what to diagnose. Hell, doctors back then didn’t even know to wash their hands – medical science was still in the dark ages. But by the summer of 1852, literally a few short months after designing the tower, Pugin couldn’t recognize his wife, he was babbling incoherently, and death was only a few months away. His final work was the unnamed clock tower at Westminster Palace.

If you want to hike up the 334 limestone stairs to take a selfie next to the famous bell, you’re out of luck if you come from my neck of the woods. British citizens can contact their MP to arrange a tour of the facility but out-of-country folk aren’t permitted. I’d feel a bit slighted at this, had I any desire to walk up 334 stairs to look at a bell. It seems to me I could just purchase a normal-size bell and hold it really close to my face for a similar experience.

The 16-ton original bell was cast in 1856 and hauled by sixteen horses through the streets of London to the palace. While it was being tested, it cracked beyond repair and a second bell was commissioned. The Whitechapel Bell Foundry cooked up a 13.5-ton replacement and sent it over. It only took two months of use for the second bell to crack, likely from the use of an excessively heavy hammer. Or maybe it was the foundry; Whitechapel was the same place where that other famously cracked bell was made, the Liberty Bell.

The bell’s crack remains to this day; they simply twisted the thing 1/8th of a rotation and used a lighter hammer. But hauling the thing up there – that’s the tale that released this topic on my fingertips so I’d best put that to bed.

The process of lifting the massive bell into place involved 18 hours of grueling labor. An 1,800-foot chain was wound over huge drums in a giant windlass. Eight men turned the windlass and excruciatingly slowly they raised the timber cradle holding the bell. The cradle was outfitted with guide wheels to slide up some restraining timbers to keep the thing from swinging back and forth.

Once the bell reached the clock chamber, it was turned upright and removed from its cradle. It was simply a matter of lugging it twenty additional feet up to the belfry and Big Ben was ready to chime. The first sonorous tones rang out on May 31, 1859.

Strung up around the headliner of the tower are four smaller bells, known as the quarter bells, and not – as I would have expected – the Little Bens. They are tuned to the key of E, specifically to the E, G#, B, and F# notes. The tune they play – which will forever be embedded in my brain as the soundtrack to my grandparents’ novelty doorbell – is known as the Westminster Quarters. There are five different permutations of those four notes in the tune, with one played at the quarter-hour, two at the half-hour, three at 45 minutes after the hour, and four on the hour (followed by Big Ben’s regal clangs, denoting which o’clock it happens to be). The tune is actually a set of variations on a portion of Handel’s Messiah.

The songwriting credit for the Westminster Quarters goes to Dr. Joseph Jowett, a professor of civil law at Cambridge, though it’s believed he had help from the music prof, Dr. John Randall. Also, it’s believed that Dr. Randall’s brilliant pupil, William Crotch (or “good ol’ Billy Crotch” as I’d like to think he was known) may have assisted. It was written for the clock tower at St. Mary the Great, the Cambridge University church, but only after it became the theme song for Big Ben (and his orchestra) did the Westminster Quarters become the standard clock-tune on grandfather clocks and home-based wall clocks all around the world.

It’s not perfectly clear why the bell came to be known as Big Ben. Some believe it was named after civil engineer Sir Benjamin Hall, who oversaw the later stages of the rebuild at the Houses of Parliament, but a more interesting thought is that it was named after Benjamin Caunt, the one-time heavyweight boxing champion of England. It’s more likely the former, since he was active in the bell’s installation while Ben the boxer had been retired for nearly two decades at that point, but I like the boxer story more.

The Elizabeth Tower is a beautiful piece of architecture, and Big Ben’s authoritative chime truly helps to define the vibe of being in London. The tower is, however, tilting a little to the northwest – roughly 9.1 inches, actually. This is mainly due to the construction of the Jubilee Line of the London Underground in the 90’s. It has a ways to go before the tilt becomes a concern, but I’d expect to see some work being done on the place before the matter gets too out of hand.

Hopefully they don’t crack the damn bell again in the process.

Day 874: Browsing The Naughty Bits Of Reddit

originally published May 23, 2014

I’m going to let you, my loyal readers, in on a secret. My weapon of choice with which I take aim at any number of strange stories, from murderous ice cream vendors to toilet gods, is Reddit. If you’re unfamiliar with the social news site, let me fill you in on how it works.

Reddit is split into roughly a gazillion communities, known as subreddits. When you join (which is free), you subscribe to the ones that interest you. For example, r/funny is where you’ll find everything from church sign typos to pugs dressed like the Blues Brothers. r/foodporn features exquisite shots of steaks and BBQ shrimp skewers and whatever else will make you regret eating Hellman’s mayonnaise with a spoon for supper. There are also subreddits for all types of fandom, from the Beatles to classic films to the TV show Community (not the happiest subreddit right now, trust me).

And naturally there are boobies. While I restrict my redditing to perusing my front page, which I have customized to my own wonky obsessions, and the r/Wikipedia subreddit, which is filled with a bevy of interesting and obscure topics like the ones I cited above, there are communities for all sorts of fetishes and quirks. And like any landscape in which freedom of speech is the guiding tenet, sometimes things go too far.

I’m offering this photo of an elephant driving a car because searching for images to represent r/jailbait will get me fired from my day job.

Reddit is comprised of a notoriously small staff. Volunteer moderators police a number of the forums, ensuring that posts in r/Modern_Family don’t feature online Ponzi schemes or links to bestiality. Also, the general public can upvote the best or most interesting posts, while downvoting the stuff they don’t like, resulting in a democratic front page of generally high-quality posts. The site’s administrators originally had no intention of hosting pornographic material. They didn’t want the hassle.

Then along came a moderator with the handle ‘violentacrez’. He offered to observe the obscene communities and yank down anything illegal. He created and patrolled a number of subreddits, and helped to ensure people could masturbate to Reddit without fear of stumbling across something they shouldn’t. Unfortunately, the ‘shouldn’t’ proved to be quite popular, with r/jailbait – featuring non-nude but provocative shots of teenage girls – winning the 2008 user poll as “subreddit of the year”.

CNN’s Anderson Cooper did a report on the subreddit, criticizing the site for hosting it. It’s one thing to allow users to stir in screenshots from Chicks Who Do Dudes XVII with gifs of dancing squirrels, but this community existed solely for the purpose of exploiting minors. Naturally, the people were outraged – so much so that they flocked to r/jailbait in droves, splattering the page with 1.73 million views on the day of Cooper’s broadcast.

Not long after the media explosion, r/jailbait was shut down. Free speech remained Reddit’s priority, but a line had to be drawn. Inevitably, some grotesque element of the public always forces a line to be drawn in the sands of anarchy. There’s always some twisted schmuck with one hand down his pants and the other frantically searching his immediate environment for something to fulfill his vulgar and societally inappropriate needs. And after r/jailbait disappeared, the next community to receive the media’s scandalous slobber was something called r/creepshots.

A creepshot is a subversive photo taken of an attractive woman, sometimes in the midst of a yoga stretch or maybe as she’s ascending an escalator in a short skirt. Once again violentacrez was part of this community’s moderator team. But the press was ready to strike back. Adrien Chen, a reporter from Gawker, threatened to expose the actual identity of violentacrez to the world. This was about to get real.

Michael Brutsch, the actual human behind the handle, begged Chen not to release his identity. He immediately deleted his Reddit account and offered to delete any and all of his contributions. But Chen had a story to drop and drop it he did. Michael was outed to the public, resulting in the loss of his employment and health benefits – not a good thing for a guy with a disabled wife to support. And while the ethics of the creepshot itself had already peppered the news, now there was a new kind of morality to debate.

How appropriate was it for Chen to drop Michael’s real identity in his Gawker exposé? Yes, Michael moderated a number of communities that, while they didn’t contain illegal content, were so close to the borderline of illegal the smell of entrapment must have been nostril-shattering. But he was not the only one. And isn’t the real question here whether or not Reddit should have been allowing these communities to exist in the first place?

The facts make for a messy truth salad. On the one hand, Michael was pivotal to the existence of communities that promoted grotesque invasions of privacy and pedophilic perversions. But on the other, he patrolled those communities to ensure there was nothing illegal being dropped into the trough of public consumption. Michael was bullied out of the online forum due to the negative publicity, and he received a number of death threats. The entire mess is just covered in an unpleasant stench.

Other subreddits have also forced the site’s owners into reconsidering its open-range, anything-legal-goes policy. Not surprisingly, r/niggers was banned for being filled with racist assholes. r/MensRights hasn’t been banned, though after flooding the Occidental College Online Rape Report form with a heap of false reports, the community is being watched closely.

When the subreddit r/findbostonbombers was set up last year in the wake of the Boston Marathon attack, two innocent students were falsely fingered by the community. One of them was discovered face-down in Rhode Island’s Providence River shortly thereafter. Still, Reddit remains firm – online witch hunts and the indulgence of despicable (yet still legal) proclivities are within the realm of Reddit’s open philosophy. Maybe those are sacrifices we must lay at the altar of online freedom, given that the alternative – no matter how nicely you dress it up – is censorship.

Do we want an internet that acts as an anarchic playground for everyone’s inner weirdness? Or do we want one that lands under government control, subject to the same moronic lobby groups who protested Murphy Brown’s baby out of wedlock or the scandalous notion of a gay wedding on a prime-time sitcom? Myself, I’ll just let the nutjobs do as they will and use the thing for information and story ideas.

And maybe some foodporn. That stuff is sooooo hot.